Baltimore’s preservation commission today turned down a Mount Vernon church’s proposal to expand a parochial school on the grounds that it called for too much demolition in a historic district.
The Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation voted 7 to 0 to disapprove an application from The Loyola School — formerly known as the Loyola Early Learning Center — to tear down the rear portions of five 1850s-era rowhouses on East Madison Street to make way for its proposed expansion to include kindergarten through fourth grade at the school.
The vote was a setback for the educators seeing to expand their school but a victory for preservationists who have seen a series of nineteenth-century buildings demolished, damaged or threatened in recent years, especially in the Mount Vernon area. It’s also a sign that the preservation commission is willing to stand up to developers when it believes there might be a better approach.
Currently located at 801 St. Paul Street, the school is an affiliate of St. Ignatius Church at 740 North Calvert Street. The houses are at 104, 106, 106, 110 and 112 East Madison and are thought to be designed by the highly-regarded architectural team of John Rudolph Niernsee and James Crawford Neilson.
The proposal called for retaining the front halves of the five houses and tearing down the rear sections to make way for a new three-story school building. Commission members and staffers calculated that the construction of the school as proposed by Banta Campbell Architects would result in the loss of 47 percent of the “historic fabric” on the five lots, which would be consolidated.
The Rev. William J. “Bill” Watters, the school’s founder, told the preservation panel during a virtual hearing that the expansion would help the school grow while remaining close to the church and other amenities in Mount Vernon.
The CHAP staff recommended disapproval of the plan. It was also opposed by the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association’s Architectural Review Committee, Baltimore Heritage and homeowners such as Christopher Hyde, who urged the panel to protect entire buildings and not be satisfied with plans that only save facades.
“For the life of me, I do not understand why developers think they can go into a historic, CHAP-protected community and proceed to tear down historic buildings,” Hyde said. “Loyola is virtue-signaling with their plans to build a school. I don’t care what they plan to build. Just don’t tear down half of five finely-constructed row homes to build a school that might not even be around in 20 years.”
As preservationists, “we need to take the long view,” Hyde continued. “We need to ask what will subsequent generations think of the decisions that we’re making today, when all they have around is a bunch of facades…There is a lot of opposition in Mount Vernon to this sort of facadism.”
Before taking their vote, members of the preservation commission also questioned the need to tear down so much of the five buildings, which are functional and have been relatively well maintained.
“This is a tough one because the use is such a wonderful one and the design is not a bad one, the concept of it,” said commissioner Laura Thul Penza. But “it does seem like there is a little bit too much demolition.”
Commissioner Ann Powell asked how much of the to-be-saved portions of the Madison Street buildings actually would be preserved in their entirety, and not just as shells. The issue has come up with the adaptive reuse of the two former Grand Central buildings at Charles and Eager streets, which have been stripped to two bare walls under the guise of preservation.
“I guess what’s dubious to me in this kind of filing is I have no idea of what original fabric is being maintained, and if this is really just making them into shells that are being pretty much gutted on the backside,” Powell said. “It is very destructive of this intact row. There’s a lot of demolition. I think I just have a lot of reservations about this. “
Commissioner Anath Ranon recommended that the design team explore ways to retain and reuse a higher percentage of the Madison Street buildings, perhaps by removing the rear portion of one or two of the structures but not all five.
“I feel like there might be a greater preservation solution that they haven’t explored fully,” she said.
Very sorry to hear about this decision – I think the Preservation Commission should rethink their decision.
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