Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Martick's: Why preservation will help the new development

On a wet and cold February day what was going on catty corner from City Hall in the windowless Phoebe Stanton room on the 8th floor of the tired Benton Building provided another great lesson in the many ways historic preservation can be misunderstood. Still, even 56 years after Penn Station in New York was demolished, an event that is usually cited as the birthplace of American historic preservation.
Marticks after closure in 2008 with the adjacent garage still standing

The occasion was a meeting of the Baltimore City Commission for Historic Preservation (CHAP) and small historic structures threatened to be swallowed by development proposals for contemporary apartment buildings. First on the agenda was Martick's, a tiny two story building on Mulberry Street that has been boarded ever since Morris Martik left the stove of his Restaurant Francais cold in 2008 after a run of nearly four decades.

One can argue for the historic stature of this building on the ground of its architecture: The vaguely Federal style building dates back to somewhere between 1830 and 1850, making it one of a few Baltimore pre-Civil War buildings. Or one can argue historic relevance because it is dear to a whole generation of older Baltimoreans who frequented Martick's Tavern as artists or bohemians. Initially run by Morris' father since 1917 (he served jail time for selling booze during prohibition) or later later to enjoy French cuisine prepared upstairs by Morris who had learned to cook that way after he had, , locked the Tavern up to go to France, frustrated by the "artist alcoholics" as he apparently called the folks hanging out in his place for endless hours. Those more elaborate French dishes he cooked upon his return were still a revelation back in 1971 when he reopened the old abode on 214 West Mulberry Street in which he had been born in 1923 and in which he lived to his death in 2011. (More detail in Baltimore Heritage's blog).
Martick's as a tavern 

In January CHAP sided with both of those arguments for historic relevance and unanimously recognized the building as historically significant (it sits inside the Market Center National Register District), forcing the developer, who wants the building gone, to come back with a an application for demolition based on "financial hardship".
The locally significant Market Center Historic District represents Baltimore’s retail growth and development from ca. 1820 to 1945. The rowhouses, small commercial buildings, churches, schools, hotels, department stores, and chain stores record the evolution of the city over a 100-year period. The District also is significant for the variety of architectural styles and building types represented, and for the work of locally important architects within the district boundaries. (Market Center Historic DistrictInventory No.: B-1262, Date Listed: 2/4/2000)
The CHAP commission starts their deliberation off with a staff report. The recommendation: Table the decision since the financial report provided by the applicant, doesn't include potential cost breaks from grants and historic tax credits. In yesterdays session the developer, Chris Janian, president of Vituvius Development, presented various scenarios which more or less gobbled up the old structure and showed one with the building fully gone. Their conclusion: All cases, except the full demolition, present a financial hardship, because the developer can't recover the stated $1.1. million rehab cost with a reasonable return on investment (CHAP allows 8% as a threshold after 5 years). The developers admitted that their proposed six story apartment building wasn't designed yet and that the images were just "massing" sketches, but all images made whatever was left of 214 West Mulberry, look ridiculous, especially since the architect (Quinn Evans Architects) maintained that no windows could be placed in the west facade of the six story apartment block towering over the small old building.
The bar and dining area, brighter than it usually was  (SUN photo)

Then the commissioners asked a few questions. Commissioner Larry Gibson was especially interested in the Chinatown aspects of the development where it faces Park Avenue. (The developer assured that he likes Chinatown and promised to preserve the 5 buildings facing Park Avenue. Jim Rouse who had worked for Martick as a waiter from 1974-81 gave a colorful rapport of the life inside the shabby building in which the French food (specialty: bouillabaisse) was served in near total darkness. Naturally, he spoke in opposition of demolition. Councilman Eric Costello and Market Center Merchant Association Director Kristen Mitchell spoke for demolition, probably because the owner asked them to, at any rate, they didn't provide any particular reasons for their position other than convenience for the developer. Johns Hopkins of  Baltimore Heritage spoke succinctly for a delay in the vote since the materials had not been made sufficiently public.

So what are the misunderstandings? 

The first comes from the developer who had responded to a BDC request for proposals to develop almost the entire block, but the RFP excluded the Martick's building. The developer then purchased the derilict Martick's in Decemberfor $100,000. One would think, that buying a 170 year old building in a registered historic district should come with an understanding that preservation may be required. But Mr Janian had another goal. Later at the CHAP hearing, in the second case of a developer wanting to (partially)tear down historic buildings, the owner of  the Baby's on Fire record store suggested reasonably: "If you buy a historic building, don't count on demolition".
Morris Martick: Almost always grumpy (SUN photo)

Other misunderstandings came from the architect and the structural engineer. The latter emphasized the poor condition of the structure, not something one can hold against the historic building, rather against those who let it go after it closed in 2008. ("Demolition by neglect"). The architect made no effort of showing how the much larger new structure could be a good neighbor to the old relic. He could have shown a few convincing precedents from other cities where such in-congruent adjacencies have been done with success and respect. Lack of respect can kill a historic building, too.
live music at Martick's Tavern (SUN photo)

Then those who testified for demolition, because they are afraid the developer would run away from this very difficult block. A misunderstanding, too. True, the Market Center District can't afford to lose anyone who wants to invest there, especially in a very difficult block like this. But aside from presenting a very inflated cost of $1.1 million for the rehabilitation of less than 3000 sqft, the tiny building could hardly be a game changer in the $30 plus million deal, especially before all possible funding, use and support scenarios have been properly played out.

The biggest misunderstanding is that historic preservation is just a costly drag and impediment to new development. What matters much more than the added initial cost, is the value a preserved historic building adds to the development. Baltimore with its stagnant population and not exactly stellar reputation needs more than a sleek new apartment building to attract people to move here, especially right next to Mulberry Street with its three lanes of incessant traffic.
A unloved hovel in Bad Cannstatt, Germany (1975)

What could be a better accessory and branding tool than a building that is older than most anything in the suburbs? Better than a building with such a storied history of uses, attractive to any any age? Elsewhere they have to insert second hand antique beams and barn-doors to create the bit of "experience" and "authenticity" people are longing for. To look at the sad condition of the current structure and conclude that it should better go, proves nothing but a lack of creativity, imagination and inspiration. Fix the thing up and nobody will ever suggest again that it should have been torn down.
Cherished and reincarnated in Bad Cannstatt,
Germany (1985)

I have seen this before: A few years after Penn Station had been demolished, I fought to preserve a 15th century old religious "cloister" in Stuttgart and thus learned to understand the value of preservation. A small group of dedicated people saved the dumpy HVAC shop that was slated for demolition for a department store. Today, shiny department stores are long obsolete, but the fixed up "cloister", in its reincarnation as a wine bar, is the pride of the town.

Part 2 will deal with the Morton Street carriage houses.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Ed Gunts about Martick's CHAP hearing in January
Business Journal article about Martick's

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