Thursday, January 19, 2017

Old Baltimore on fire

Sooner or later the vacant vestiges of Baltimore's presumably more glorious past catch fire. The next step: demolition, hot demolition some call it.
320 N. Eutaw Street in flames

I have written about how this fate hit the vacant historic New Academy Hotel and the Mayfair Theater at the corner of Franklin and Howard which were only the more recent examples of the many vacant structures burning towards their demise. Last Saturday another proud structure on the Westside went up in flames (SUN article).

Officials said the fire started at 6:31 p.m. Saturday at a vacant six-story building in the 300 block of North Eutaw Street. Crews arrived within minutes and saw heavy smoke coming from the second and third floors. The fire was not officially put under control until 3:30 p.m. Sunday.
"We've gone into strictly exterior operations due to the possibility that the building may collapse. We've also established a collapse zone at this time, so that if it does go, no one will be injured," Baltimore City Fire spokesman Chief Roman Clark per WBAL.
Clark confirmed Sunday that there was indeed a collapse inside the building, which has been condemned by the building inspector. 
Well preserved and ornate: A over 100 year old building

The building began its life around 1900 as a furniture retail store and remained a furniture store for over sixty years until 1962. It later became the Maran Building,a six-story office building with 76,662 square feet of space and 25 on-site parking spaces. In 1992 the Maran real estate company and printing company put the fully leased building up for sale for $1.95 million when it wanted to move its own operations elsewhere.
The building was shuttered in 2002 when the Tunnel nightclub was closed for code violations and deemed a center for violence. According to real estate records the properties since changed hands in 2007 for over $9 million and in 2009 for over $3 million, if correct, those numbers would indicate a significant collapse in real estate but also a steady decline of a vacant structure itself. In 2011 the entire row 312-322 N. Eutaw Street was up for auction. Even at that point the building was in solid condition with a roof that didn't leak and floors that were almost ready for move-in, far better than most of the vacant buildings along Howard Street. 320 and 322 N Eutaw Street share a common elevator and were usually marketed together with their 8,000 and 4,400 sf floor plates offering what modern users usually want to see. The buildings are deep and have a second face on the wets side at the alley.
Pretty but vacant and apparently unwanted

Hard to imagine that the building still has a value in the millions after Saturday's fire. The roof collapsed and maybe the top floor as well. 22 hours of fire will most likely have ruined everything that was functional in the building and potentially even weakened the structural integrity.

The building is a historic structure listed on the Westside must preserve list. The original furniture retail building was known as the the Gomprecht and Benesch building. It is a good example of an early 20th century retail store building which looks similar to the Bernheimer Brothers building on West Fayette Street, suggesting that both buildings were designed by the same architect, Charles E. Cassell. Gomprecht and Benesch and its predecessor company, Eutaw Furniture Company, were businesses in Baltimore from 1883 until 1962. 

This storied history of a very solid building that is a six story landmark on Eutaw Street, shows that preservation is not sentimental nostalgia. Instead, preservation of key structures is instrumental for the revitalization of the Westside. The fact that even a sturdy tall structure with large floor plates had trouble to find a decent user in decades (apparently for most of the time after 1992) speaks to the difficult situation of Baltimore's downtown real estate market but it may also sheds a light on the lack of strategic action to revive at least the most significant buildings.  The next fire may gut the old Stewart's building or any of the other structures huddling as hulls and testimony to the failed Superblock or the generally depressive state of Howard Street. Any use would be better than vacancy. 
Large open floors, 13' ceilings (here the mezzanine)

Time to think about populating especially City-owned buildings with temporary uses. The Downtown Partnership's pop-up storefront use program a few years back was a good start for privately owned properties like the former Tunnel night Club on Eutaw Street (that particular project did not participate)..

It is time to take action against speculators that sit on vacant buildings dragging down a neighborhood in the hopes that somebody else's investment will one day present them with a nice windfall profit. One way to counter that kind of speculation is to tax vacant properties higher than occupied ones or tax land higher than buildings. (Split rate taxes). 

Billionaire Dan Gilbert's (Quicken) downtown Detroit investments came from a very rich individual. But they also prove that revitalization is possible and that the ghosts of yesterday's downtowns can have a different future than being fuel for spectacular fires.
a massive assembly of mostly vacant structures at Eutaw
and Mulberry Street

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore Heritage Facebook page.

The furniture store in 1910


Downtown Detroit: Revitalized Capitol Park