Preservationists in Fells Point won a reprieve yesterday in their battle to save a row of buildings that were once a school run by Franciscan friars.
Workmen who were about to begin demolishing the structures next to the former St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church were forced to lay down their tools when confronted with the news that they lacked a crucial permit.
After asking to see their paperwork, City Councilman James B. Kraft said city officials had not officially approved the wrecking crew's plan to stabilize an 18th-century house that the preservationists hope will remain standing on the site. The so-called "four-bay mansion," built about 1795, is in the middle of the row of buildings on Aliceanna Street that are slated to be torn down.
"Everything is going to stop right now," Kraft told a group of about 20 neighborhood residents who had gathered at 7 a.m. and watched as he spoke with the construction workers inside the site, which could become a row of condominium townhouses. Kraft emerged to say that the crew had shown him only a sketch of how they planned to shore up the four-bay house.
The Rev. Joseph Benicewicz, speaking from the Franciscan order's provincial headquarters in Ellicott City, said it was a "huge surprise" to learn that the friars' plan required the blessing of city officials.
"We would say we had everything we needed," Benicewicz said. "There's nothing in the permit that we had that says it had to be stamped or approved by the city. We have taken all steps that are necessary to be able to proceed with a valid demolition."
The delay, he said, "continues to cost us more money."
It could also mean a revived fight over the fate of all the buildings, including the three-story, four-bay mansion, said Ellen von Karajan, director of the local Preservation Society. The friars' demolition permit expires April 5 - hence the rush yesterday - and an application to renew it could force city officials to reconsider whether to let any of the buildings be destroyed, she said.
Von Karajan and other activists are urging city officials to confer landmark status on, at the very least, the four-bay house - so called because its width, about 28 feet, permits four windows in a row, as opposed to most other houses of the period in Fells Point that are three or two windows wide. Local historian Bob Eney said the only other four-bay house known to have existed in Fells Point, on Thames Street, was demolished in 1934, although details of its architectural highlights are preserved in the Library of Congress.
Despite the efforts to save the house on Aliceanna Street, the Franciscan friars who own it are determined to tear it down, their lawyer, Ryan J. Potter, wrote in a letter to the city March 12.
"The friars are opposed to landmark status for the four-bay house," Potter wrote to City Solicitor George Nilson, stressing the "substantial" financial loss they would incur if a single building were to remain on a site the friars hope to sell to developers.
Potter acknowledged that a developer who had shown interest in the site had prepared an architectural plan that called for retaining the four-bay house, but that it had done so "merely as a show of good faith in the context of negotiations with certain neighbors."
In an interview yesterday, Von Karajan's response included a derogatory analogy to "Indian givers."
Potter's letter contended that the demolition permit issued by the city includes the four-bay house, and that officials at the Department of Housing and Community Development agreed last year that the house could come down. They later reversed themselves, Potter wrote.
A review of permits for the property going back to 2006 stipulates that the four-bay house was to remain standing, a finding confirmed yesterday by Cheron Porter, a spokeswoman for the housing department. Porter said housing officials planned to meet with Nilson next week to try to iron out any discrepancies in the permitting process for the site.
Reached by phone, Potter said, "You understand that while something's in controversy I'm not going to comment on it."
The battle over the 1.7-acre site of the church, built in 1889 for the city's then-robust Polish community in the 700 block of S. Ann St., has raged for years and reached the state's second-highest court. The friars decided more than three years ago to sell the property to developers. They worried that former parishioners wanted to open a renegade church on the site, while the parishioners say they want to turn the property into a Slavic heritage museum.
The battle to preserve the site faltered when the church's rectory was torn down about 18 months ago. There is no plan to demolish the church.
In June, the neighborhood activists lost a challenge in the Court of Special Appeals. The court ruled that the parishioners did not have legal grounds to contest the friars' contract with the developers who were involved at the time, although they have since left the project.
Nancy Caudill, who has lived on nearby Fleet Street for 23 years and opposes the condominium project, said she hoped the permit issue would delay and even prevent the demolition.
"What would be ideal is that the Franciscan fathers would be willing to work with the community," she said. "Up until now, they've just stonewalled everyone."
Benicewicz, the friars' spokesman, said he regretted that the dispute over the buildings had pitted people in the neighborhood against the church.
"We have made every attempt," he said, "to do good things down there."