Preservation hearings produce same result, different attitudes

Architecture

Architecture Column

September 17, 2007|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun architecture critic

Twice this summer, Baltimore's preservation commission voted to recommend adding a building to the city's landmark list, despite objections from owners who didn't want that building to be designated a landmark.

In both cases, the outcome was the same: The nomination was approved, and the building received the protection the panel wanted.

But the difference in tone between the two sessions was as different as night and day.

At the first meeting, involving the 40-year-old Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, the owners enlisted speaker after speaker to explain why they didn't think the downtown building should be named a landmark. After the vote, the owners were clearly displeased with the outcome.

At the second meeting, involving the 74-year-old Scottish Rite Temple of Freemasonry in Tuscany-Canterbury, an attorney for the owners said they didn't want the building to be listed, but that they understood the panel has "a set of criteria you have to meet" and pledged to work with the city no matter the outcome of the vote. No one else testified objecting to the designation.

The difference in the two reactions may hold lessons for future occasions in which the Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation moves to designate buildings that owners don't want to see listed -- as members have said they intend to do to protect buildings from demolition.

Once a building is added to the landmark list, the preservation panel has legal authority to review and block changes to the exterior -- which could hold up the sale or redevelopment of a property.

Neither the Mechanic nor the Scottish Rite Temple can be added to the list without the approval from the planning commission, City Council and mayor -- steps that have not yet occurred. But both have been added to a list that gives the preservation commission immediate authority to block any changes for six months.

Here are a few of the differences between the two nominations:

Separate styles

The 1,600-seat Mechanic Theatre at 1 W. Baltimore St. is a modern building, designed in a style known as Brutalism by an architect of international renown, John M. Johansen. The more ornate Scottish Rite Temple, a Masonic meeting hall at 3800 N. Charles St., is a neoclassical building designed by Clyde N. Friz, Charles Friz and John Russell Pope. Pope, the most highly regarded of the three, also designed the nearby Baltimore Museum of Art and University Baptist Church.

Both the Mechanic and the temple met the commission's criteria for landmark designation, although the Mechanic wasn't as much in the mold of most landmarks on the city's list because it is not as old and is untraditional in its design.

The theater's designation was questioned by many because of the theater's unconventional shape, rough concrete surface and lack of traditional ornamentation, and because of the way it turns its back on Charles Street. On the other hand, the Masons' building, with its large front portico and stone walls that evoke a Greek temple, is "the essence of a landmark," preservation commission chairman Tyler Gearhart said during the panel's deliberations.

Constituencies

The Mechanic, in the heart of downtown, is surrounded by commercial properties. The Scottish Rite Temple is in a mostly residential area surrounded by three strong neighborhoods -- Tuscany-Canterbury, Guilford and Oakenshawe.

The Mechanic's designation was supported by well-known architects, educators and architectural historians from the United States and Great Britain, including luminaries such as Richard Rogers and Richard Meier, but many of the neighboring property owners were businesspeople who testified against naming the Mechanic a landmark because they saw it as a lifeless building that no longer contributes to the vitality of downtown. Designation of the Scottish Rite Temple, by contrast, had strong support from residents of the neighborhoods around it, as well as others.

Panel's timing

The Mechanic has been largely dormant since 2004, when the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center opened on Eutaw Street. It was acquired the next year by developers who bought it for possible conversion to new uses. At the time, they knew the building did not have local landmark status that might have prevented them from making changes.

The Scottish Rite Temple has been owned since its 1933 opening by the Scottish Rite Charitable Foundation. It has been thinking about selling the building and moving to a smaller location due to declining membership and the rising cost of upkeep.

Both buildings were designed for specific uses and would be difficult to adapt for new uses without major modifications.

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