Wednesday, May 29, 2019

How not to erase history, one building at a time

The two pre-Civil War stone mill-worker houses which were recently  leveled in Woodberry, in spite of promises to preserve them, seem to be an especially brazen case wiping out history through deceit, but they are far from being an exception.
Almost nothing can reverse this 2hr act act of vandalism (Photo: Philipsen)
In response to the startling demolitions of two historic stone homes from the 1840s in Baltimore’s Woodberry neighborhood on May 21, 2019, Preservation Maryland issued the following statement:
As the statewide historic preservation advocacy organization, Preservation Maryland feels compelled to denounce the recent demolition of 3511 and 3525 Clipper Road, two historic stone buildings in Baltimore’s Woodberry neighborhood, and voice our concern over the precedent this type of demolition presents. [....] 
Preservation Maryland recognizes not every building can be saved. This situation, however, sets a troubling precedent where public concern is disregarded, assurances are ignored, and demolition occurs without basic safety precautions. The loss of these buildings also underscores the need to take a hard look at the demolition review process in Baltimore City and to address the challenges citizens face to guide development in their own neighborhoods. Baltimore’s history deserves much better than the bulldozer’s blade. (Preservation Maryland)
In fact, Baltimore, a city with a rich and long history and one of the largest set of earmarked historic structures in the US, can look back on a whole series of legal or illegal demolitions that often lead to surface parking lots or even sites covered in rubble and no prospect of construction. At times courts intervened, injunctions were issued and yet, in the end the buildings were gone.
Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue ca 1930 (Theater Talks)

Some of those demolitions go far back: the Calvert Building on St Paul and Fayettte (demolished 1971), the News American Building at South and Pratt Streets, the Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue (1971), The McCormick Spice Company (1989) the Southern Hotel at Light Street (1993), the Sun Life building on Redwood Street (2001) and the Rochembeau on Charles Street (2006) are just a few examples.
Some demolitions are more recent and even involve modern buildings or structures such as the Mechanic Theater (demolished in 2014), the McKeldin Fountain (2016), the St. Vincent's Infant Asylum on Division Street (2015) and the Freedom House on Druid Hill Avenue (2015). Large scale demolition can be expected for the Baltimore Jail later this year.
Baltimore Jail (rendering)

Sometimes the demolition-happy parties were developers who overestimated their ability to build new, sometimes a company that saw a brighter future elsewhere, sometimes it was the City and its inspectors, or an agency set on urban renewal. In one case it was the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore that wanted a better view of its famous Basilica, in another Bethel AME demolishing instead of repairing. Sometimes developers even get the official blessing of CHAP to demolish historic assets through a very large loophole in preservation: Economic hardship. (Example: Eddie's in Mount Vernon).
A token marquis, the Royal today
(Photo: Philipsen)

Not that preservation in Baltimore didn't have a lot of successes as well. In fact the City is brimming with excellent examples of preservation and adaptive reuse, too numerous to list, from the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in West Baltimore (reconstructed now) to the American Brewery in East Baltimore and many more in between.

But if an owner or developer is intent on destruction, there is currently little leverage to really prevent it, no matter if a structure is in a local historic CHAP district (which has legal protections) or just in a National Register District (which has only carrots but no sticks). A developer who breaks the law may get stopped and fined, by which time the deed is usually done. At times the developer even walks away, leaving behind a pile of rubble without any prospect for anything. This seems to be the case in Clipper Mill and it certainly has been the case in Marble Hill. Outside of CHAP Districts one can rarely find hard reasons to deny a demolition permit. One exception may be the historic Gombrecht Building at 320 N. Eutaw Street which is outside the Market Center CHAP district. The applicable urban renewal plan there stipulates that demo can only occur with new funded development plans in place. A demo application is currently under review.
McCormick Spice Company demolition on Light Street
So what could be done to prevent those who, against better knowledge, are set on a slow continued destruction of Baltimore's history?

For example, what could really protect Martick's former restaurant, initially a thorn in the side of the developer doing the block at Park and Mulberry? The developer agreed on keeping the front part after a push by the preservation community. But with the demo permit for the rear portion of the property in his pocket, what would prevent the developer to push it all down in the span of maybe an hour?

The case of those Woodberry stone houses, where the deed of demolition was done in the span of a morning should be used as an instructive lesson.

  • The $3,000 fine the contractor has to pay is about lack of notice, missing fencing and lack of dust control. The fine is nothing in the context of the overall project cost. 
  • The the project had been presented to the design review panel (UDAAP) showing the historic houses preserved and integrated into the project. But it meant nothing. 
  • The preservation charade was the result of a massive public outcry, but as Pavlina Ilieva, UDAAP chair and partner of the the firm Pi.Kl which was the architect of the project stated: "You can't just rely on advocacy by the community".  
  • Woodberry is a historic district on the National Register of historic places, but tat distinction means nothing for enforcement, it just entitles developers to incentives.
  • The Department of Community Developmnt which handles permits issued a demolition permit but knew nothing about the UDAAP review and vice versa. ""There is no alignment of policy or process" (Iliaeva). 
As a result of the deceit, the project lost one of the development partners and also its architects. Most of all, though public trust was lost. It is entirely unclear at this point, what will happen with the two piles of rubble marring Woodberry, a well kept community for which those two houses were so architecturally representative.
Demolition of the Sun Life building on Redwood Street (Sun

Learning from this case, a revision of the tools available to prevent the all too frequent demolitions could include these steps:
  • change the zoning code so that contributing buildings in the National Register District have some level of protection even if they are not individually listed as individual landmarks. 
  • Do not allow demolition anywhere without approved long-term plans and financing in place
  • Increase the fines for violations significantly so they become a true deterrent
  • A much tighter definition of "economic hardship"
  • State and federal historic tax credit programs need to be better funded and be linked to reinvestment and social impact funds
  • If a project had been approved by UDAAP for a certain design, no significantly deviant construction permit should be issued, no matter what and when.
    What's left of the St Vincent Infant Asylum building in Marble Hill
    (Photo: Philipsen)
When asked what measures she would consider effective in preventing further debacles like the one in Woodberry, Ilieva aslo suggested clearly defined memoranda of understanding (MOU) between the developer and the community or even between UDAAP/Planning and te Owner.

For those who doubt that more preservation is worth any trouble or may even think that we have too much historic stuff already: There is a growing body of evidence that historic preservation returns more value than the extra cost it sometimes causes compared to new construction.

Baltimore offers the evidence: The areas with lots of preservation (Fells Point, Federal Hill, Bolton Hill, Mount Vernon) are faring far better than those with demolition and plenty of urban renewal. Areas of large scale demolition such as State Center, the Highway to Nowhere, Jonestown Mall or where the highrise projects used to stand did far worse, economically, socially and in terms of urban design. Their historic character is what sets cities apart, especially in a time when historic value isn't just counted as exceptional brick and mortar, but also in terms of social history. The Reid's Drugstore on Howard Street, for example., is not remarkable for its architecture but for the Morgan student sit-ins that happened there long before the Civil Rights movement really unfolded.
St Vincent Infant Asylum building in Marble Hill before demo
(Baltimore Heritage)
One of the great surprises of the digital age is that quality of place remains such a key factor in where people choose to live and businesses choose to open their doors. Only 10 or 20 years ago, futurists and technologists promised us that place would become irrelevant: We would all live and work and connect with the world via the internet, free to roam anywhere we chose. But millions of years of evolution are tough to shake; we remain social creatures and continue to seek connection, delight, and fulfillment in real, physical space. (CityLab 2-8-2019)
Especially in the current difficult situation in which Baltimore finds itself, the city's history and its rich architecture are very valuable assets which everyone should cherish.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Mechanic Theater demolition  (Matthew Carbone)

Related articles on this blog:

Tearing down Eddies in Mt Vernon? (Eddies in Mount Vernon)
Demolition gone astray (Rowhouses in South Baltimore)
Old Baltimore on fire (The Gombrecht Building on 320 N. Eutaw Street)
Bombing downtown (The Mechanic Theatre)
Why "tearing it all down" is not an option (former Elementary School PS 103)
House that was demolished
(Preservation MD)
Chambers Building on Charles Street: Demolition and then what?

A similar house on the same side of Clipper Mill Road that has been restored
(Photo: Philipsen)

Demolition of theWoodberry stone houses (Photo: Fred Scharmen)

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