Five large rowhouses in the Mount Vernon historic district would be torn down to make way for a prayer garden, if Baltimore’s preservation commission approves an application it received this month.
An attorney for the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, the owner of the five houses, said in a Nov. 18 letter to the city that the church wants to raze the houses it owns at 35, 37, 39, 41 and 43 W. Preston St. The four-story buildings are across the street from the main entrance of the church at 24 W. Preston St.
Caroline Hecker, the attorney, said the church wants to replace the midblock houses 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 request marks the second time in the past two years that a religious institution has sought to raze a row of houses in the Mount Vernon historic district. In 2021, leaders of St. Ignatius Church applied to partially demolish three houses at 104, 106 and 108 E. Madison St. so they can expand a school at 801 St. Paul St., Loyola School in Mount Vernon.
The Loyola School originally sought to partially demolish five houses, including 110 and 112 E. Madison St., a plan that CHAP turned down. CHAP approved the school proposal last December, after the design was revised to call for the partial demolition of only three properties. The school also agreed to preserve the south façades and front rooms of the three houses and build its new structure behind them, preserving the appearance of the streetscape.
Also in Mount Vernon, CHAP approved a developer’s request to raze most of the former Grand Central nightclub at 1001 to 1003 N. Charles St. to make way for an eight-story office building, under the condition that parts of the original buildings’ Charles Street and Eager Street facades be retained. That project was approved and is nearing completion this fall.
In this case, the church is not offering to preserve the Preston Street façades, as it did with a previous renovation on the same block for its Annunciation Orthodox Center at 25 W. Preston St. Its request is closer to the plan by an arm of Baltimore’s Basilica of the Assumption, which razed the historic Rochambeau Apartments at Charles and Franklin streets to create a prayer garden dedicated to the late Pope John Paul II.
The Preston Street application will trigger a two-step public hearing process by Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP). CHAP has the authority to review and approve plans for any exterior changes proposed for buildings in Baltimore City historic districts, up to and including demolition.
Representatives for the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association say they received a copy of the application this month and are working on a response. The community organization has generally opposed demolition requests for midblock buildings, on the grounds that they create a ‘gap-toothed look’ in otherwise unbroken streetscapes and undermine past preservation efforts by literally eroding the historic district.
The organization has urged property owners to save and recycle buildings if at all possible, especially if they can be used as housing. In this case, members are asking whether the five large houses could be sold to the University of Baltimore or others in the community with a track record of fixing up older buildings for new uses, such as Zahlco Companies.
Currently vacant and boarded up, the five houses on Preston Street are just east of the Baltimore Theater Project’s home at 45 W. Preston St. and Heptasoph Hall at 1225 Cathedral St., a former location of Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse. Their demolition would leave a large midblock open space, breaking the continuity of the street wall.
In her letter to CHAP, Hecker argued that the five buildings are in poor condition that they can’t be saved. She said the church has tried to maintain the buildings over the years but they have continued to deteriorate.
“The Properties were gifted to the Church in the 1990s and early 2000s and were already in a state of disrepair at the time the Church acquired them,” she wrote. “During the time the Church has owned the Properties, it has invested tens of thousands of dollars to repair and preserve them but, despite the Church’s efforts, the Properties have continued to deteriorate to a point where they have lost their structural integrity and cannot be preserved.”
In 2009, she said, “the Church engaged Acropolis Construction to perform repairs to the existing façades and, in 2015, the Church engaged Michael J. Walkley and KTW Enterprises, LLC to design and install a roof cap in an attempt to preserve and protect the existing structures.”
Altogether, she said, “the Church invested over $91,000 in its effort to preserve and repair the existing structures, but cannot undo the damage that had already been done…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. Accordingly, we respectfully request permission to demolish the existing structures.”
In her letter, Hecker used the same argument that the Johns Hopkins University used when it sought a demolition permit for seven houses on West 29th Street: that vacant buildings pose a fire and safety hazard to the surrounding community. As Hopkins officials did, she pointed to an incident in which three fire fighters were killed battling a fire involving a vacant row house on Stricker Street last April.
“In light of the tragic death 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 Properties in a manner more consistent with its religious vocation,” she said.
She also argued that the buildings “are in such a state of disrepair that they have lost all historic significance and no longer contribute to the character of the Mount Vernon Historic District” – part of the criteria CHAP uses in evaluating demolition requests.
A date for the first CHAP hearing, to determine whether the five houses are “contributing structures” in the historic district, has not been set. If CHAP determines the buildings 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.