Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Demolition going astray

Sometimes Reagan's infamous taunt about being from the government and here to help you as the most terrifying words you can hear rings true as in Sunday's demolition on Fort Avenue that resulted in a double calamity.
unplanned demolition in historic South Baltimore

Even without close inspection of the rowhouse under rehabilitation that the City condemned and demolished over the weekend because of  a bowing front wall, full demolition seems like an extreme measure to take even before one knows that the demolition destroyed the adjacent building as well. Bowing front walls are very common since they are not held by much else than the roof rafters. But that also means that they are not important for the support of the rowhouse floors which span from side to side. A bowing front wall can usually be tied back to the nearest floor joist with so-called star-bolts that one can frequently see on Baltimore rowhouses demarking the floor levels on the facade. Even a bowing side wall can be shored up from the outside with temporary bracing. Both 212 and 214 Fort Avenue were vacant buildings planned for or already under renovation. It isn't obvious how the vacant structure presented such an imminent danger to life and health of neighbors that even police was stationed there overnight.
The buildings before demolition

one floor is already down
The demolition mishap brings Baltimore's the demolition derby to a relatively affluent area in South Baltimore located between Federal Hill and Locust Point which is rapidly gentrifying. Fort Avenue is not a street with plenty of boarded up structures and it has a fairly solidly historic street front on both sides.
The moment when the the second house falls

Taking down the historic storefront corner building is a bad idea all around, taking down two buildings even more. It isn't clear how city inspectors assess risk in these cases. While they saw imminent danger on Fort Avenue, the much taller former nightclub on North Eutaw Street which was heavily damaged by an enormous fire earlier this year stood for weeks afterwards completely unprotected even though its entire cornice area was precariously un-braced after the roof and top floor had collapsed and various parts of the front could have easily have come crashing down on the busy sidewalk and street.

Demolition of vacant buildings has been going for decades. It was once before in high gear when Dan Henson was Housing Commissioner and HABC bought its own demolition equipment. The frenzy then received a damper when a weekend demo took accidentally down the dividing wall to the adjacent house as well exposing a unsuspecting residents sitting on his sofa in the living room. Nobody was injured.

Today, Housing contracts demolition out again and K&K Adams was the demolition contractor at work on Fort Avenue. But the eagerness to demolish has reached new heights with extra money coming from the State through project CORE.
[...] one of Baltimore’s best resources are these old row houses and tearing them down is a big opportunity cost that can never be replaced.  That’s why we have historic districts and why historic districts are valued today. (David Alpert, Greater, Greater Washington)
This building with a heavily damaged cornice
stands since January, initially even without a
The mishap on Fort Avenue is as unusual as demolition in gentrifying areas where the historic charm is a mayor factor in successful sales. However, as I stated in these columns many times before, even disinvested areas have a much better chance of being rehabilitated than of being rebuilt from scratch after massive demolition. In an area with a weak or absent market, nothing would sell bland low end new construction except huge subsidies. There will never be enough money do to that on a grand scale. Turning an area around aiming for market-based investment requires maintaining the historic and cultural character of the area.

Federal Hill, Fells Point, Ridgely's Delight, Highlandtown and Remington have become hugely successful even far away from the waterfront because they had a large contiguous stock of old rowhouses which, once rehabilitated can easily cater to modern lifestyles. Large scale demolition in a neighborhood is really akin to writing it off for good.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN article
Video of the demolition

My book, Baltimore: Reinventing an Industrial Legacy City is my take on the post industrial American city and Baltimore after the unrest. 
The book is now for sale and can currently be ordered online directly from the publisher with a discount and free shipping. 


  1. my understanding is that the house on the left was under renovation and they'd begun to dig out the basement, which could have been the cause of the wall bowing out. but the laundry mutt building had just been sold 3 weeks earlier and renovations hadn't started. the store-front building also had an attached garage + three stories, so it was a prime spot.

  2. In this case, taking down the historic storefront corner building was proved to be a bad idea. This shows the importance of close inspection, as what demolition companies do prior to actual demolition.