Thursday, October 18, 2018

Why the demolition of historic buildings remains a bad idea

Awareness of the value of historic preservation for urban design, economic development and the authenticity of cities has dramatically increased since the days when New York City thought nothing of demolishing its beautiful Pennsylvania railroad station.
Architect Philip Johnson and Aline Saarinen  protesting demolition
of Pennsylavia Station in New York, the beginning of the modern
US preservation movement

Baltimore has one of the largest collections of historically designated buildings in the country; for all of the city's problems, there is hardly anybody who wouldn't praise its rich architectural heritage. However, this hasn't stopped the powers to be from taking down many important structures. A few examples of currently endangered buildings and already lost ones are listed below:

The State not following its own rules : The Baltimore Jail

The Baltimore jail, dating back to the Civil War era,  is a difficult case for anyone who cares about historic preservation. The historic complex is partially still in use and is a manifestation of many of the ills of the American correctional system. Deficiencies in the complex are so rampant that the complex is subject of a lawsuit for violation of human rights in 1971, with various settlements and improvements made since then until Governor Hogan announced a shut-down in 2015. The State took the facility over on request of the City in 1991.
Baltimore City Jail, cruel conditions, notable architecture
The City still operates Central Booking there. In 2015 Hogan said he wants it shut and torn down and that there were no plans to rebuild. This year the Maryland prison system initiated a Section 106 review, a step required if historic properties will be demolished using federal funds (Maryland has adopted the same provision for use of State funds). In the words of the correctional system:
The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections Services (DPSCS) is proposing demolition at the Baltimore Correctional Complex in Baltimore City in order to construct a new, state-of-the-art, code compliant facility that meets 21st Century Conditions of Confinement for inmates. The project is needed to respond to the ongoing Federal judicial review and 1993 Consent Decree citing the unhealthy environment, inadequate facilities, and privacy issues at the Baltimore City Detention Center.

Pursuant to Maryland Historical Trust Act of 1985 Section 5A-325 and 5A-326, commonly referred to as Section 106, DPSCS initiated Section 106 with the Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) on January 29, 2018 and submitted Determinations of Eligibilities (DOEs) on the Baltimore City Jail and Maryland Penitentiary on May 18, 2018; both DOEs can be accessed via this link.  MHT concurred with the findings and DPSCS held the First Consulting Party Meeting on July 25, 2018 and presented the determinations from the DOE documentation, identified the project scope, outlined a draft Area of Potential Effect (APE), and identified historic resources within the APE. 
The State maintains that no alternative locations are available. However, no alternative to demolition has been presented to date which would either relocated prison junctions, rehabilitate the existing historic buildings for correctional purposes or would use them with new uses that either co-exist with correctional uses or require relocation of correctional uses. The 106 process requires investigation of those alternatives:
When a proposed project will have an adverse effect on historic properties, the agency must explore alternatives to avoid, minimize, or mitigate those effects. MHT seeks to prevent adverse effects on historic and archeological properties through consultation. Sometimes adverse effects are unavoidable given project need, environmental or design constraints, emergency situations, or other requirements. (MHT website)
 Barring immediate and strong actions of community groups in the vicinity of the prison or by preservation activists the unique granite structures of the historic prison complex will be demolished without a proper vetting of alternatives and without a proper public involvement process, both are requirements before historic resources can be eliminated.

The jail sits at a critical seam in the middle of Baltimore. It contributes to the isolation of eats-side neighborhoods; the large complex  has long been identified as instrumental for the revitalization of the east side of Baltimore. The swift and largely stealth demolition plans (bids for demolition contracts are already being prepared), are not acceptable, not  from a city planning perspective and much less nor from a historic preservation and not from a due process point of view.

City forces demolition: Gomprecht and Benesch Building

A devastating fire born out of neglect
A sad witness of Baltimore's to date unsuccessful attempts of breathing new life into Baltimore's Westside is the Gomprecht and Benesch Building, a stately a six-story brick commercial building on Eutaw Street just a block north of the Lexington Market. The building has stood vacant for 15 years until it caught fire in 2017, resulting in one of the biggest downtown fires in recent memory. (See article). Since the fire fighters left after two days of fighting the massive fire nothing has been done to save the building. Instead it stands on the busy street with a precariously unstable cornice and without a roof. Inside at least one floor collapsed, yet most of the shell appears to be structurally stable. In efforts to get the absent DC based LLC who owns the building to do something, the City entered into a consent decree that requires demolition by November 28 this year. It is ironic that the City would aim in that direction. Nobody is helped with a vacant lot on Eutaw Street, a downtown artery which, so far, has been largely spared those ugly vacant lots. In the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties the building is described this way:
The Gomprecht and Benesch building
Erected in 1901 in the Renaissance Revival style on the west side of North Eutaw Street about 100 feet south of West Mulberry Street in central Baltimore, Maryland. The five-bay facade has large industrial plate glass vertical pivot windows flanked by Ionic and Corinthian columns. The heavy overhanging cornice has dentils, foliated modillions, and lion heads. The Roman brick side piers have medallions and lion heads below the intermediate cornice. The street level storefront is altered and consists of plate glass windows across the entire front flanked by polished granite panels at the sides. The entrance has been relocated to the north elevation. In 1986, the building was occupied by a printing service. The building was later used by The Tunnel nightclub which closed in 2002.
With a rehabilitation of the Lexington Market apparently within grasp, the demolition of one of the stateliest buildings on Eutaw Street would be the worst outcome possible. Clearly, even if the owners feel unable to fully rehabilitate the building, the demolition would cost likely as much as a new roof which would stabilize the cornice and protect the remaining shell from the elements. Once the building is stabilized the City should assist in finding a developer who would be willing to invest in an area with the region's best transit access.

Developer's pie in the sky developments that don't seem to happen: 

How easily demolished buildings can turn into far bigger eyesores than the vacant structures were before demolition, can be seen on two properties on Baltimore Street, both owned by David S. Brown Enterprises. The most aggravating eyesore can be found at Baltimore's 100% corner at Baltimore and
Pie in the sky: 315 West Baltimore Street (BBJ)...
Charles Street, the intersection from where the four downtown quadrants (east, west, north, south) emanate and where now a field of rubble has replaced the former iconic Mechanic Theatre. Two blocks to the west, Brown demolished a couple of historic garment district buildings and a defunct parking garage. Here too, nothing but a chainlink fence and rubble. In both cases the developer had dangled fancy towers with hundreds of apartments and first
.....Nothing but rubble (315 West Baltimore Street 
floor retail  in front of the eyes of City officials in order to get his demo permits.

All of Baltimore's successful conversions and adaptive reuse projects are apparently not enough to convince officials that preservation is a much better path towards economic development, proven from Boston to Detroit. No city demolishes itself to prosperity.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

An incomplete list of lost Baltimore historic landmarks can be found here

Related on this blog:
Bombing Downtown

No comments:

Post a Comment