417-421 N. Howard St. Photo by the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.

Plans to create a “ruin garden” at the Current Space artist gallery on N. Howard Street  can move forward after Baltimore’s preservation commission this week approved a $500,000 plan that calls for partially demolishing an adjacent building.

The Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve a plan to tear down most of the former C. H. Lears furniture store at 417 N. Howard St., even though it is part of the recently designated Howard Street Commercial Historic District, where CHAP has the authority to review and approve proposed changes to building exteriors.

“Everyone is eager for us to more forward,” said Julianne Hamilton, the gallery’s assistant director, after the 9 to 0 vote. “This is a big hurdle.”

The three-story building slated for partial demolition is next to the present home of Current Space, a one story structure at 419-421 N. Howard St.

Photo courtesy of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.

The demolition plan calls for the debris to be cleared out and for the front façade of 417 to be retained and stabilized to help enclose a new outdoor space next to the existing gallery. The project also includes repairs to the one-story gallery building.

Benevento and Hamilton said the expansion space is inspired by popular beer gardens and ruin gardens in other countries, including Germany, Hungary and Panama. They said the proposed space is called a ruin garden because it will contain artifacts salvaged from the demolition of 417 and other buildings in the Howard Street corridor, including the former Mayfair Theater.

According to CHAP, the building at 417 was constructed in the early 1900s to replace a wooden stable and was originally used as a feed store and warehouse. In the 1920s, it housed H. R. Eisenbrandt, a company that sold musical instruments. In the 1930s, it was a women’s clothing store. C. H. Lears moved in during the early 1940s and remained until 1990, when it closed. The building has been vacant for the last 28 years and is now owned by the city.

The Baltimore Development Corp. sought proposals for the property as part of its efforts to revitalize Howard Street, received a bid from Current Space’s directors and chose them to acquire it for expansion.

Current Space is an artist-run gallery and artists’ collective that began operations in 2004 in a city-owned building at 30 S. Calvert Street and moved to Howard Street in 2010. Its directors have a land disposition agreement to acquire both their current home and the adjacent building but needed CHAP’s approval in order to move ahead with the purchase.

Besides being in a local historic district, the property is part of the state-sanctioned Bromo Arts and Entertainment District. In 2017, the State of Maryland chose the project to receive $500,000 from its Creating Opportunities for Renewal and Enterprise (Project CORE) program to help fund the expansion, and Current Space is in the process of raising additional funds.

Michael Benevento, the director of Current Space, told the commissioners that the roof of the former furniture building collapsed onto the floors below in 2011, leaving the structure open to the elements and full of debris. “We were getting ready for a show and we felt it,” he recalled.

Benevento said Current Space originally tried to find a contractor to renovate the whole building but the damage was too extensive. “No one would touch it,” he said.

According to Dustin Hite of the Patuxent Engineering Group, the Howard Street façade will be stabilized with galvanized steel bracing on its east side, so it is structurally sound and the side facing Howard Street retains its historic appearance.

Technically, CHAP voted to determine that the structure behind the front façade at 417 has lost its architectural significance and does not contribute to the historic district because of the roof collapse and other damage. That determination means CHAP will not require the owners to retain the side and rear walls as part of their expansion and the city will issue an “authorization to proceed” notice for the demolition work.

Benevento said the agreement with BDC calls for the purchasers to pay $50,000 for both the current building and 417, and that $40,000 of that amount is a “forgivable loan.”

CHAP commissioner Jim French, a developer active in the Howard Street historic district, said Current Space has been a good neighbor and he looks forward to the expansion.

“I want to commend Current Space for the work they have done,” he said during the meeting.  “This is a project that will really contribute to all the good things happening in the Bromo arts district.”

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.