So one morning you're sitting at a traffic light on Harford Avenue in East Baltimore, three blocks south of North Avenue, and you notice something you missed on previous trips through the area: Torino's Subs & Pizza. It's a five-sided, brick, stand-alone carry-out shop on a triangular corner. It looks as though it landed on this concrete peninsula in 1946 and took root. If not always an eatery, it could have been a police station or post office. Because of its peculiar shape and location, the building certainly makes an impression. You find it kind of cool.
Here's the odd part: Two weeks later, when you reach the same traffic light, Torino's roof has caved in and it's front has crumbled. A sign says, "Emergency condemnation." A man on the street tells me a tractor-trailer hit the place. The traffic light changes; you move on, life goes on. But you're left disappointed that such an unusual little building suffered such a sudden and cruel fate, and we might not see its likeness again.
Old buildings seem to be falling a lot lately — most by intention and not by accident — at least in my travels through the city.
Within the last month, for instance, several rundown rowhouses along Greenmount Avenue near Biddle Street seemed to disappear overnight. I'm not complaining about that, particularly because site work already has begun on new construction at the location, and I have considerable drive-by curiosity about the $11 million apartment complex that will replace those rowhouses. Still, it was startling to see something so old and familiar — once-upon-a-time homes to Baltimore families — fall so quickly.
The light changes; you move on, life goes on.
Late last year, a large building at Saratoga Street and Guilford Avenue disappeared literally overnight. For most of the previous decade it had been One, the chic nightclub. But for most of the 170 years before that, the establishment at that location had been the House of Welsh. That old tavern famously survived the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. In fact, more than 30 telegraph operators filed news reports about the disaster from the third floor of the House of Welsh.
Did that make the building worth saving? No. It was intact on a Friday night, a pile of rubble by Saturday afternoon.
The light changes; you move on, life goes on.
Of course, not every old building has sufficient historic stature to merit preservation. In fact, even some that are endowed with a great back-story, like the House of Welsh, are not spared. Preservation is always nice and always costly, and both government and private funds for that purpose are limited. Keeping and repairing old places seems almost like a luxury in this post-recession age of austerity.
I'm not saying Torino's Subs and Pizza should be resurrected to its historic best with federal funds and nominated for the National Historic Register. But its quirky shape and location gave it a certain uniquely-Baltimore appeal, and you'd like to regard that as reason enough to bring it back to life. Who knows? Maybe the owner will recreate Torino's and its five-sided charm.
All of this recent wreck-and-removal affirms my appreciation for Preservation Maryland, the non-profit that keeps an eye on these things. Each year, the organization publishes, in collaboration with Maryland Life magazine, a list called "Endangered Maryland," drawing attention to places that might soon disappear without action.
The 2012 list includes The Pest House in north-central Baltimore County. Built in 1872 of stone from the nearby Texas quarry, The Pest House was used to isolate people with contagious diseases, according to Louis Diggs, longtime chronicler of the county's African-American history. Mr. Diggs would like to see The Pest House, which sits behind the alms house that became the Baltimore County Historical Society in Cockeysville, restored and turned into a base for his research.
In New Windsor, Carroll County, the 42-room Dielman Inn, a vacation destination for city dwellers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, made the Endangered Maryland list. The Dielman sits at the heart of Main Street, and its disappearance would be a big loss to the town. So, instead of settling for wreck-and-removal, instead of surrendering to life-goes-on, the town purchased the place in the hopes of convincing a developer to invest in the Dielman and turn it into something grand again. Good for them, and good luck with that.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. For the complete Endangered Maryland list, visit http://www.preservationmaryland.org.