Historic Meeting Place for Civil Rights Leaders OK’d for Partial Demolition

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The King Briscoe House
The King Briscoe House

Three months after Baltimore’s preservation commission granted emergency landmark protection to a vacant Marble Hill row house with ties to the city’s civil rights history, the panel voted yesterday to allow nearly one third of the house to be torn down.

Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) voted 7 to 2 to accept a staff report stating that the rear portion of the King/Briscoe House at 1232 Druid Hill Avenue has lost its “historic integrity” and therefore no longer contributes to the historical significance of the rest of the building.

The vote means that the commission will not block plans by the building’s owner, Bethel AME Church, to tear down the rear portion of the building.

The King/Briscoe House is considered a “sister” to the “Freedom House” at 1234 Druid Hill Avenue, a three story row house that Bethel AME tore down last year after obtaining a demolition permit.

The Freedom House was a longtime meeting place for civil rights leaders, and was visited by prominent national figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt.

After its demolition, the Freedom House was included on two national lists of “important buildings that were demolished in 2015,” giving Baltimore a black eye on the national preservation scene.

In January, CHAP voted to add the sister building to a new “potential landmark” list that provides six months of protection from the wrecking ball, to encourage Bethel AME to find a way to preserve it.

During CHAP’s public hearing on Tuesday, Bethel attorney Leronia Josey, warned that the rear portion of 1232 is structurally unsound and could collapse at any time. She said the church does not want to be liable for any harm or damage caused in case the building collapses.

In recent weeks, several vacant buildings in West Baltimore have collapsed, resulting in at least one death.

“We don’t want that liability,” she said. “We just don’t need it. We respect the historicity of the area and everything. But we just don’t want any more stories in the paper.”

Josey said the church owns several other deteriorating buildings in the Marble Hill area and is in the process of deciding whether to rehabilitate them or “see if we need to divest ourselves.”

photo courtesy Baltimore Heritage.
photo courtesy Baltimore Heritage.

Stacy Montgomery, a staff preservationist, told the commissioners that demolition of the rear third of the building would not detract from the significance of the rest of the building. Several speakers, including a demolition contractor hired by the church, testified that removing the structurally unsound rear portion by hand would make it more possible to stabilize and preserve the front section, which is two rooms deep.

Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage, an advocacy group, said he opposes the partial demolition. He said allowing partial demolition is just rewarding the church for failing to maintain the building adequately over the years.

“We feel strongly that this is a classic example of demolition by neglect,” he said. “We feel that there are any number of buildings in Baltimore where demolition is warranted. This is not one of those buildings.”

“We have several other buildings in the neighborhood that are in much worse condition,” said resident Marti Petrelli.

CHAP panel member Larry Gibson said he doesn’t think the panel should reward demolition by neglect on the part of a building owner. At the same time, he said, “if the historic integrity is gone, I don’t see why we should put the community in danger.”

Before voting to allow the partial demolition, the CHAP commissioners said they would like to see a more detailed plan for stabilizing the front of the building.

After the vote, Josey said she did not know how soon the demolition work might begin. Although CHAP’s vote means it will not block demolition of the rear portion, she said, the church still needs to obtain the actual demolition permit from the housing department.

Under the terms of the “potential landmark” designation, the temporary protection for the rest 1232 Druid Hill Avenue will expire in mid-July.

Ed Gunts

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  1. This is preferential treatment, Baltimore Politics as usual. Other negligent property owners get receivership of their properties; Bethel gets the city to pay for their demolitions and no citatations for over 20 years.

    • Marti, you fought a good fight and you are now a full-fledged community activist. I applaud your courage, and I know that you will invest just as much energy in helping residents stay in their houses so that they don’t end up like the Freedom Houses.

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