Community leaders in Mount Vernon and preservation advocates citywide reacted with surprise and dismay to a local church’s plan to demolish five large 1890s-era rowhouses in the Mount Vernon historic district and say they will oppose the proposal when it comes up for a public hearing next month.
The community leaders also say they’re heartened by the number of people who have voiced opposition to the plan, which calls for demolition of the four-story houses at 35, 37, 39, 41 and 43 W. Preston St. to make way for a prayer garden.
But Father Anastasios Bourantas, presiding priest of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation at 24 W. Preston St., defended his church’s demolition plan yesterday, in his first public remarks about the controversial proposal:
“I do trust that we’re doing the best thing for the church and the best thing for the community at large,” Bourantas said. “That’s one thing I can say, that we are concerned about the entire community.”
Most Mount Vernon residents became aware of the demolition plan after Caroline Hecker, an attorney for the church, filed an application on Nov. 18 for authorization to raze the five houses on Preston Street and replace them with “a prayer garden and other hardscape improvements for faith-based gatherings and other functions on the Properties, in furtherance of the Church’s religious mission.”
The application triggers a two-step hearing process by the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), which has authority to review all exterior changes proposed for buildings in city historic districts, including Mount Vernon. According to CHAP executive director Eric Holcomb, the first hearing has tentatively been scheduled for Dec. 13.
“The Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association (MVBA) is disheartened by and strongly opposed to the proposed demolition of five historic townhouses located at 35-43 West Preston Street across from the Greek Orthodox Cathedral,” said MVBA president Jack Danna, in a posting on Facebook. “These historic houses are officially listed as contributing structures to the Mount Vernon Historic District and as such play an essential role in the historical integrity of our community.”
The MVBA “fervently disagrees with the assessment by the Cathedral that these structures ‘have lost all historic significance,’” Danna continued. “In fact, the facades are fully intact and feature Palladium windows, elegant brickwork, and columns with Ionic scrollwork.
“Moreover, we believe the Cathedral has failed in its basic responsibilities as the owner of these historic structures,” Danna said. “We view their poor management of the properties and nominal investment of funds to constitute ‘demolition by neglect.’
“These buildings absolutely can and must be preserved,” he stressed. “MVBA will work with federal, State, and local preservationists, as well as other interested organizations, to fight this proposal.”
The community association has an architectural review committee that scrutinizes proposals to alter or demolish buildings in the historic district and forwards its recommendations to CHAP, which then takes the association’s position into account as part of its review process.
MVBA board members said they first learned of the demolition proposal two days before the permit application was submitted to CHAP.
In a phone interview on Friday, Danna said he was disappointed about the lack of advance notice. He said he thought that church leaders or their attorney would have come to the association long before applying for a demolition permit, to say they have a problem or need and want to discuss options for addressing it. Instead, he said, “the Orthodox leadership hadn’t even come to us as a good partner…They’re powerful. They could be a strong neighbor in helping us make a stronger historic district.”
Danna said there are alternatives to a prayer garden that ought to be explored.
“These are contributing structures and they have a heightened level of protection” under the law, he said. “It’s very arrogant of the Cathedral to think that we’re going to stand by and allow these buildings to come down when they complement the streetscape and enhance the streetscape, and then use a cheaper development model such as the prayer garden, which still is polarizing to all of us in Mount Vernon” because of the lost battle to save the Rochambeau building on Charles Street when the Catholic Church wanted to create a prayer garden in its place.
“We love prayer and contemplation, but it’s the cheaper ends to the means to get what they want, and that’s unacceptable,” he said.
“Doing the best thing”
Caroline Hecker, managing partner of Rosenberg Martin Greenberg LLP and the attorney who filed the demolition permit application, did not respond to a request for more information about the church’s proposal and its properties, which are currently vacant and boarded up.
Bourantas, the parish priest, declined on Monday to discuss the proposal in detail over the phone, but he answered what he could.
Describing himself as the spiritual leader of the congregation, the priest confirmed that the church is seeking a demolition permit and is awaiting approval from the city.
“Right now it is an application,” he said. “We’re dealing with CHAPs right now, so that’s where it stands. That all I can say.”
Bourantas said he couldn’t say much more because he has only been in his position for a short time and was still learning about the proposal himself.
“I’ve been here for exactly, well, not even two months yet,” he said. “I’m the new clergyman, so I’m still getting familiar with what’s happening, So I don’t know. If I did, I would tell you. But I don’t know right now…I’m not familiar with the entire story.”
When might more details come out? Will there be any meetings with the community before the CHAP meeting?
“I don’t know,” the priest said. “I wish I could tell you…I wish I could be more help.”
While saying he appreciates being contacted and would be available to meet in person, Bourantas warned that he still wouldn’t be able to share much information about the proposal.
Bourantas said he didn’t come up with the prayer garden plan.
“It’s not my idea,” he said. “We work as a council. I am the spiritual leader of the community. So yes, we do work as a community. We work as a council. It’s not my idea. We work together as a church.”
During the phone call, Bourantas seemed unaware that the church’s proposal has sparked controversy.
The priest said that even though he doesn’t have all the specifics about the proposal, he is in full support of it.
“I don’t know all the details, but I do trust that we’re doing the best thing for the church and the best thing for the community at large,” he said. “That’s one thing I can say, that we are concerned about the entire community. Not Cathedral, but the community here in Baltimore.”
A different approach
The Greek Orthodox Cathedral’s approach to providing information, with two weeks to go before the first public hearing, is different from the route taken by the leaders of St. Ignatius Church when they sought permits to partially demolish three buildings on East Madison Street to expand an affiliate, the Loyola School in Mount Vernon.
Before CHAP held any public hearings for that project, leaders of Saint Ignatius Church met with community residents in a private residence on Calvert Street; unveiled detailed plans with the architects on hand to answer questions, and offered to lead tours of the buildings that would be affected, to show the condition they’re in.
Instead of a letter from an attorney, Father William “Bill” Watters personally pledged to work closely with the community every step of the way. CHAP approved the project last December.
Developers of the eight-story office building nearing completion at 1001-1003 N. Charles St. also gave the MVBA advance notice of their plans and held a series of community meetings before CHAP had any public hearings to consider a partial demolition permit to make way for that project.
Hecker, a land use and real estate attorney who joined Rosenberg Martin Greenberg in 2007, has taken the lead for the Greek Orthodox Cathedral. She argued in her Nov. 18 letter to CHAP that that five buildings on Preston Street are in such poor condition that they can’t be saved. She said they were in a “state of disrepair” when they were given to the church in the 1990s and early 2000s and that the church has tried to maintain them over the years but they have continued to deteriorate.
Hecker said the buildings now “are in such a state of disrepair that they have lost all significance and no longer contribute to the character of the Mount Vernon historic district” – part of the criteria that CHAP considers in evaluating demolition requests.
She also warned that the buildings pose a fire and safety hazard to the surrounding area, and she drew comparisons to a vacant house fire on Stricker Street in which three city firefighters lost their lives last April.
“In light of the tragic deaths of three firefighters earlier this year while battling a blaze in a similarly vacant structure, the Church is deeply concerned about the hazard the existing structures pose to the public and wishes to utilize the three Properties in a manner more consistent with its religious vocation,” she said.
In their current condition, “the existing structures cannot serve the Church’s religious mission, nor is it possible to salvage and restore them to a usable state,” she said. “Accordingly, we respectfully request permission to demolish the existing structures.”
What are ‘hardscape improvements?’
Danna and Scott Ponemone, chair of the MVBA’s Architectural Review Committee, said they disagree with Hecker’s contention that the five buildings have lost all architectural integrity and don’t contribute to the historic district.
Danna said all five primary facades appear to be structurally sound. Ponemone said Hecker is entitled to her personal opinion but he doesn’t think she’s in a position to judge whether structures have lost their status as contributing buildings to a historic district.
“The primary facades, which are the most important things that CHAP is interested in, are in wonderful shape,” he said. “They don’t in any way detract from the historic nature of Mount Vernon or have lost any of their historic significance. That’s their principal point. They are in no way qualified to determine what has historic significance and what does not.”
To date, the MVBA board members said, they haven’t seen any plans showing exactly what the church proposes to build in place of the five houses. Without any plans to review, they said, they don’t know what percentage of the land would be used for a prayer garden and what percent might be reserved for other uses.
Ponemone said he isn’t clear what Hecker meant by the term “hardscape improvements” in her letter to CHAP.
“They use the word ‘hardscape,” which is another word for parking lot,” he said. “So we have no idea what part of that vacant space, should those buildings come down, would actually be a prayer garden as opposed to a parking lot.”
What they can picture, he said, “is another serious gap in the Mount Vernon streetscape, like a missing tooth, or a missing five teeth in this case.”
In historic districts and much of downtown Baltimore, property owners aren’t allowed to tear down buildings for parking lots without City Council approval, but some try. One of the most recent cases is the former site of the H. Chambers Building in the 1000 block of North Charles Street, a 1960s-era office building that was razed several years ago and whose footprint is now paved for parking.
“You lose that walkability, you lose that heightened pedestrian experience,” when buildings come down in urban areas and aren’t replaced, Danna said.
Danna and Ponemone said they also weren’t persuaded by Hecker’s warning about fires because the vacant house on Stricker Street was open to squatters, whereas the Preston Street houses are boarded up and directly across from the Greek Orthodox Cathedral’s main entrance.
“They should sell them”
Other Mount Vernon residents voiced opposition to the church’s demolition plan on Facebook, after Baltimore Fishbowl posted an article about it last week. Many suggested that the Preston Street houses need a new owner.
“This is outrageous,” said architect Ryan McCloskey. “If the church cannot afford to maintain the structures, they should sell them. The last thing Mount Vernon needs is another mid-block demolition.”
“They should stop complaining and just sell the houses to someone who has the resources to fix them,” agreed Mount Vernon Place resident Drew Rieger. “So tired of the churches in this neighborhood being the biggest danger to historic preservation.”
“Most living don’t know that Mount Vernon used to be COMPLETELY FULL of buildings – no surface parking lots,” said Lance Humphries, a Mount Vernon resident for the past two decades and the executive director of the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy. “It created a lively streetscape with no snaggle tooth gaps that are inhospitable and create dead zones. This project is counter to everything this community has been working towards for at least 20 years.”
Beyond Mount Vernon, too, preservationists are questioning the church’s plan and urging CHAP to deny its application.
Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage, a citywide preservation organization, said he would like to see the buildings preserved.
“We think that the church should be a good neighbor and work with the Mt. Vernon community to come up with a plan that saves the buildings,” Hopkins said in an email message. “The buildings are historic and wonderfully different than most in Mt. Vernon. Restored and occupied, they would bring vitality and life to the area.”
“Anything can be saved,” said Jane Shipley, a former city housing department employee who was part of a successful effort to save houses in Otterbein in the 1970s. She said the Otterbein buildings were “mostly shells” and preservationists “had to wear flea collars around our ankles” when they went inside, but they ultimately succeeded in preserving and rehabbing most of them. Out of about 100 houses, she said, “we only lost one.”
A prayer garden already exists several blocks away, at Charles and Franklin streets, said Robert Brennan, a local architect and former chair of the Baltimore Architecture Foundation.
“This is demolition by neglect. Not to be rewarded,” Brennan wrote on Facebook. “A prayer garden is available where the Rochambeau Apartments used to stand.”
Jim Burger, a north Baltimore resident, also questioned the need for another prayer garden.
“They can’t maintain the property so God will save them?” he asked on Facebook. “Sell the buildings to someone with sense. And if you want to pray, here’s an idea, use your church.”
“That prayer garden next to the Basilica…is an urban design train wreck,” said architect Klaus Philipsen. “We don’t need more holes in our urban fabric.”
Although some have suggested that the University of Baltimore could be a potential buyer for the Preston Street houses because its campus is nearby, private developers who create projects that house university students would be a more realistic option, said university spokesman Chris Hart.
“While many UBalt students live in the neighborhoods near campus, the University currently has no plans to directly invest in housing,” Hart said in an email message.
“Midtown is growing, in part because private developers recognize the area’s potential,” Hart said. “We believe we are a key part of that equation, and we will continue to encourage a variety of real estate projects for their contributions to the quality of life in the central city. “
According to Danna, the Preston Street houses were designed by John Appleton Wilson (1851-1927), a prominent Baltimore architect who also designed the “Belvidere Terrace” rowhouses in the 1000 block of North Calvert Street.
Fred Shoken, an architectural historian and former CHAP preservation staffer, said the houses were constructed between 1891 and 1893 as part of a row of 10.
“Their classical detailing,” he noted, “is characteristic of Colonial Revival architecture, a style popular in the late 19th century.” He said the buildings are “grouped in two’s” and that the use of shared details “deftly exaggerates the width of each house.”
Shoken said the front facades have a feature that can’t be found anywhere else in Baltimore – round brick Ionic columns framing the entrances and supporting stone entablatures.
“It is rare to find freestanding columns of this type built of rounded bricks, which in this case are tapered from the bottom to the top,” he said. “I am not aware of any other rowhouse in Baltimore with this feature.”
Shoken also pointed to a 1976 Baltimore Sun Magazine article in which the late staff writer Carleton Jones described the houses as “one of Baltimore’s more pleasantly bizarre rows architecturally, an attempt to construct the Ionic architectural order out of round bricks.”
Architect Jerome Gray made a watercolor painting of the five houses before they’re torn down, as well as the cathedral across the street. Gray said he wasn’t persuaded by Hecker’s arguments, and doesn’t think the preservation commission should be either.
“I’ve said it often,” Gray wrote. “Some buildings, even contributing ones, should be torn down. But you should carefully justify it, not make up random ‘ish’ to paper over your poor stewardship.”
December 13 hearing
The Dec. 13 hearing would be part of an in-person CHAP meeting that begins at 1 p.m. at 417 E. Fayette St. Citizens won’t be able to watch or testify virtually, but they can submit comments in writing before the meeting.
In the first meeting, the preservation commissioners will be asked to decide whether the five houses are “contributing structures” to the Mount Vernon historic district. If the board determines they don’t contribute to the historic district, commissioners will hold a second hearing to review plans showing what the church proposes to build in their place.
Danna said the MVBA is “fully prepared to work with the Cathedral to identify alternatives to demolition,” as it has worked with St. Ignatius Church and others.
“The Cathedral certainly is not required to own buildings it cannot care for,” he said. “Sale of the properties to an owner with the resources to restore them should be at the top of the list of alternatives.”
If the Cathedral wishes to have a prayer garden, he suggested, using part of the large parking lot it owns on Maryland Avenue “would be a significant enhancement to the block as well as a much less costly option — in dollars and in the immeasurable loss to Mount Vernon’s architecture.”
Danna added that MVBA leaders are “very grateful for the groundswell of support coming from all parts of the metro area and the state – and even from members of the Cathedral’s own congregation – who are joining us in opposition to this proposal.”
This outcry, he said, “only underscores that demolition is not the way forward.”
This is an outrage! Since when did Baltimore’s built environment mean so little? Look at the atrocious mess that has risen across from the Maryland Club, and the convenient loss of the townhouse adjacent to it. I worry that the CHAP has lost its purpose and lost its teeth to protect our historic buildings!
Past is Precedent.
These buildings absolutely must be preserved. Mount Vernon is already mired in gap tooth demolitions of historic structures for parking lots. The applicant’s opaque reference to “hardscape improvements” is clearly code for a parking lot, with some sort of “prayer garden” attached as cover for the car storage punch in the urban fabric. I support the suggestion that if the church wants a prayer garden that they could either use the existing one on Charles Street or construct one in their existing parking lot on Maryland Avenue. The buildings’s elegant facades are not only unique in their own right, but also help to visually and physically define the historic outdoor public space that is Preston Street. I’ve long admired their unique round brick columns. After reading this article, I now know that these are indeed one-of-a-kind details for not just contributing buildings in Mount Vernon, but the entire city of Baltimore. Demolishing the buildings will ruin the historic quality of the street. Adding a parking lot will also further endanger pedestrians along a corridor where cars are notorious for speeding. The buildings should be sold to someone who can restore them and put them back to good use, such as apartments or offices.
I hope CHAP does its job and stops this from being inflicted to our neighborhood. I am also appalled at the church’s behavior. They view our community as a wasteland and I wonder why they are still here. I used to send my daughters to Greek language school thee and was very disappointed at the way the other parents viewed our neighborhood and feared coming here. As a community we have to organize to stop this.
I really hope CHAP shuts this down and confirms that these homes are contributing structures. Jack and Scott from MVBA make a good point that the congregation may be trying to sneak in another parking lot. Demolition is unacceptable.
I have worked as an architect with a focus on historic preservation for over 15 years and as a result, I have crawled around inside many dilapidated buildings, often without roofs, with missing windows, with sometimes decades of exposure to the elements. These are buildings that were eventually restored, renovated and put back into use. All were salvageable.
These houses on Preston Street are not in any visible state of disrepair, roofs are complete, windows intact, facade in alignment. They also quite clearly have lost none of their architectural character on the exterior. The Cathedral does not seem to have engaged in a structural report or reached out to the community in a meaningful way. Their approach and the messaging are disingenuous, which is troubling.
Reading this article, I feel a deep sense of betrayal. The buildings could be renovated to code and used as genuinely affordable housing for our citizens, housing that is sorely lacking in our city. Another Prayer Garden? Read this as another site for the accumulation of trash, since many of our citizens appear not to care to use city trash receptacles. Student housing? Don’t we already have plentiful housing for students who live here temporarily. How about We the Taxpaying Townies, who have to scramble for housing we can afford. Shame!
Another prayer garden. There is a beautiful prayer garden at Charles and Franklin. The gates are always locked due to misuse by panhandlers and the homeless. Can’t pray there.
As a Mount Vernon resident I understand the arguments of community and preservation advocates and others against demolition of the four story houses at W. Preston Street. I join them in opposition to that proposal. I think there are a number of additional angles to assess what’s best for our community. When you look at from a climate crisis standpoint its hard to see the value of piling on more parking spaces in Mount Vernon and greater Baltimore. There must be better options that equitably work for all. I believe and advocate in my professional life for walkable, bikeable, inclusive, transit oriented communities as the most sustainable and equitable way for the Baltimore metro region to grow and provide opportunities for all. I urge the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation to get creative and figure out a more equitable and sustainable path to reaching their goals. I will gladly line up in support.
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