Friday, March 3, 2023

The loss of Sellers Mansion: “All or Nothing “ in Historic Preservation?

The loss of Sellers Mansion is the story of the decline of Harlem Park and Lafayette Square and the story of a shrinking city that often can't save its cultural heritage. But is it also the story of historic preservation stands in its own way in a reality in which historic landmarks are often in such dire straights, that the alternative is historic preservation or total loss. In such a stark choice, should preservation of a landmark have to fully adhere to the Secretary of the Interiors's Standards for Preservation? 

Sellers Mansion 1955 (SUN Archive)

Or is the question a different one? Should an owner purchasing a historic landmark be responsible for protecting it from deterioration and catching fire? Are owners suspect to hope for "hot demolition" or "demolition by neglect" if official demolition won't be permitted.

Let's parse out what happened in the case of the Sellers Mansion and then see how the bad outcome of total loss could potentially be avoided in the future.

Baltimore's Sellers Mansion had stood for 155 years first witnessing Harlem Park as the cutting edge of Baltimore's urban development and subsequently the urban flight, underinvestment and decay that followed. The mansion held up well well for a century. Even in1960 when affluence had left Harlem Park, it had been carefully restored and adapted for community uses. Neither "redlining" nor the "highway to nowhere" had been fully realized yet, but the ugly practices of segregation and racism had long begun to cast their long shadow over the churches and brownstones of Lafayette Square.  Then decline came rapidly. 

Sellers Mansion 2023 a few days before the fire
(Photo: Justin Hillman)

CHAP: The Sellers Mansion is architecturally significant for its late-High Victorian styling featuring Second Empire elements. The craftsmanship and fine architectural detailing is remarkable and a wonderful example of an opulent and comfortable residence of the socially affluent in post-Civil War Baltimore. The mansion is often compared with residences such as the Mt. Vernon mansion located at 105 Monument Street, which has a similar proportion and styling that Edwards Davis was emulating in the Sellers new home. The Sellers Mansion is a completely detached three-story building, five bays by eight bays with symmetrically placed windows. Sitting on the corner lot, the “front” of the mansion faces west onto the square.

In the last 55 years the building changed hands a number of times, no owner pulling off an adaptive reuse, until the mansion stood abandoned for pretty much all of this century. The decay had progressed to a point where the leaky roof rotted the floors until fthey fell even before the current owner, Ernst Valery had bought the building in 2018 to make it part of his "Care Haus" project in combination with the adjacent building. Attempts of stabilizing the roof from the outside failed when heavy snow made the the roof cave some years ago. In 2021 lightning struck, but that fire was quickly contained. The roof kept leaking.

Then last week a three alarm fire gutted the roof of the mansion entirely with a portion of a wall falling. The city bureaucracy acted swiftly and began tearing the still hot building down the very minute the fire fighters had declared the blaze extinguished. The owner stood to watch. He told me "the walls were swaying". He gave the media his view of what happened. 

Sellers Manion after the fire 2023 (Photo: Johns Hopkins)

“If your business is in preserving buildings, you can’t be all or nothing, because a lot of times when you’re all or nothing, you end up with nothing, and unfortunately we’re ending up with nothing,” (Ernst Valery, developer and owner as quoted in the Baltimore Banner)

Why was the building standing in limbo? Valery wanted to adapt the building to house 15 senior apartments, an approach that reconfigured much of the interior, including the former grand stair. The proposed design also included exterior modifications such as an addition for an elevator and a roof deck cut into the mansard roof. Valery's plans were developed with the help of a historic preservation consultant  had been approved by the city preservation panel CHAP with some cautionary note about the roof deck. CHAP looks only at the exterior modifications when they consider a landmark. 

That could have been enough to green-light the project, but Valery did not only want the local preservation tax credits, but also the state and federal tax credits which in combination can be 40% of the eligible rehabilitation cost. Such an application requires review by the Maryland Historic Trust (MHT) which brings the interior of the mansion into play as well. Valery's adaptive re-use ran into the buzz-saw of the rehabilitation standards of the secretary of the interior and their interpretation by MHT. The state agency has a certain discretion but generally follows the ten standards which have guided buildings under historic preservation protection since 1977. 

Sellers Manion, demolition in progress (Baltimore SUN)

Part of the problem is that these standards were not developed with buildings in mind that have stood vacant for decades and are in danger of falling down under their own weight. Nor did they envision conditions where the real estate market is so depressed that even the fairly generous historic tax credits can't make up for the cost burden historically accurate rehabilitation brings with it. For the interior of Sellers Mansion to stay organized around the grand stair only six apartments would have been possible, not 15, a significant difference for a developer who has to consider the cost effectiveness of the project. 

Cost effectiveness in Harlem Park looks vastly different than, say, in Federal Hill or Fells Point, two of Baltimore's more affluent historic districts. Valery sees the strict application of the same preservation standards across vastly different neighborhoods as a continuation of policies that have disadvantaged these communities for such a long time. 

If MHT doesn't approve the tax credit application, not only the state 20% credit but also the federal 20% credit is blocked, regardless whether the National Park Service would like and accept the plans. My request for a comment from MHT was denied. Valery's take is that he as a minority developer in a disinvested community was the victim of a rigid interpretation of the preservation standards. In his view MHT was failing to recognize the precarious condition of the Sellers Mansion and left him in limbo "with no recourse". This accusation comes at a time when the City is reviewing its own tax credit programs and has discovered that its local preservation credits  predominantly go to the more affluent CHAP areas. 

NPS Standards for Historic Preservation 1977 (NPS)

The distribution of this credit tracks directly to neighborhoods that have either a local or Federal historic designation. There are currently 87 historic districts in Baltimore that include approximately one-third of the properties in the City. Although the credit has been granted in 81 different neighborhoods in Baltimore since its inception, it does not reach all neighborhoods equally. The neighborhoods with the greatest count and dollar value of tax credit granted are among the highest per capita income areas of the City.(Report)

The loss of the mansion also falls into a time when CHAP has began a discussion to create a "lower grade" preservation category called "conservation districts" in buildings that are neither landmarks nor located in a designated CHAP district but sit in a "National Register District". Such a designation is currently under consideration at a committee studying the matter.

How could one avoid that a historic landmark falls in such disrepair only because it sits in a distressed area? How could owners be incentivized to stabilize a landmark building even before their plans are approved? How could the state tax credit process be streamlined to provide more certainty for developers who have to finalize their "capital stacks" before they can begin construction? How can premature demolition after a fire or partial collapse be avoided and the public safety be guaranteed at the same time? How can the federal standards be adjusted so they reflect the realities of Beverly decayed landmarks?  

 Here some ideas:

  1. Historic stewardship: A local law should be passed that requires purchasers of vacant landmarks to secure them in such a way that they are stabilized and do not deteriorate further while further steps are investigated. For this purpose stabilization funds should be made available tat would have to be repaid if a project doesn't move forward.
  2. Federal and State law could be modified so that vacant historic structures whose condition is severely impacted by decay and vacancy have more lenient standards regarding interior alterations. The criterium could be that rehabilitation cost at or above the cost of building new 
  3. A local law could give the chair of the historic commission (CHAP) the right to invoke a 12 hour delay on demolition to get a second opinion on stability and alternatives to demolition wherever alternative measures can protect public safety (such as closing a larger perimeter etc.)
  4. State historic tax credits could be guaranteed when compliance is achieved giving owners certainty instead of several annual applications and their associated delays. A state bill that was signed into law in 2022 already increased the available funds. To avoid that this would blow the State budget the credit could potentially be tied to a prove that they are financially not feasible without the 20% historic State tax credit (similar to TIFFs).
 Metrics for a reform package include:

  • Reforms should provide carrots and sticks  i.e. additional burdens on owners would be offset by additional benefits or an easier path towards benefits. 
  • Reforms should maximize the economic benefits to the community: Historic preservation tax credits have shown to be good investments in that for each tax dollar forgiven between three and five additional revenue dollars have been created via economic development and better communities.
  • Equity: Better equity in preservation should mean that historic assets that are severely compromised should not face a much more arduous route than those in better shape in more affluent areas. The goal is to have as many preservation benefits accrue in disinvested communities as in affluent districts.
Baltimore has a rich history and generally also a good record of historic preservation just not applied in an equitable manner. Historic districts perform better for building evaluation and community stability. It is high time to bring these benefits to the areas of the "black butterfly" which have wonderful historic buildings, except that they are often neglected and in bad shape through the systemic disinvestment that occurred over decades. 

The Sellers Mansion fire should be a wake up call that highlights the problems of historic assets in disinvested and burdened communities. The finger pointing regarding whose fault the loss of this structure was needs to give way to a constructive way of moving forward. The above suggested reform package should kick off a constructive discussion about the right steps towards avoiding another loss like the one on historic Lafayette Square. Each of the suggested measures has to be tested for unintended consequences and for how it could work optimally in concert with the other measures. 

The strong Baltimore advocacy community of Baltimore Heritage, Preservation Maryland, CHAP, the local chapter of AIA and many local conservation stewards should make it a priority to collaborate on a strong reform package that makes historic preservation even more successful, equitable and beneficial in all of Baltimore's historic neighborhoods. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The author was architect and preservation consultant for a number of completed projects including dilapidated buildings which successfully used state historic tax credits. 

Thanks to Tom Liebel FAIA, former chair of CHAP, Johns Hopkins of Baltimore Heritage, Eric Holcomb, City CHAP & Historic and Architecture Preservation Division Chief and Ernst Valery, of EVI Development for their insights in discussions leading up to this article.