The former home of Martick’s Restaurant Francais got a reprieve from the wrecking ball this week, when Baltimore’s preservation commission determined the building contributes to the Howard Street Commercial Historic District and encouraged its owner to find a way to save it.
Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) voted 9 to 0 on Tuesday to deny a developer’s application to raze the vacant, two-and-a-half-story building at 214 W. Mulberry St., so the land beneath it could be incorporated into a larger development parcel.
CHAP staffers and commissioners noted the building is one of only a few left in the city that was constructed before the Civil War and that it still retains key architectural features on the exterior. They also noted its longtime association with the Martick family, which owned it for much of the 20th century and used it variously for a tavern, jazz spot and French restaurant.
Developer Chris Janian, president of Vituvius Development Company, said he is part of a team that wants to construct a six-story building with about 100 apartments and street-level commercial space on the block.
Park Avenue Partners LLC is the name of the larger team, and the development is expected to cost around $30 million, Janian said. The 12,000-square-foot site is bounded by Mulberry and Tyson streets, Park Avenue and Wilson Alley. The Baltimore office of Quinn Evans is the architect.
According to CHAP planner Stacy Montgomery, the Martick’s building was constructed sometime between 1830 and 1850 and is a rare example of a Federal-style building that had commercial space at street level and residences above, and was later modernized with Italianate-style details, including an elaborate cornice. She said the structure retains original features such as a gabled roof and dormer windows but, because of other demolition activity on the block, it is now “a row house without a row.”
Montgomery said the building is also notable for its association with the Martick family, which occupied it starting in 1917, bought it in the 1920s, and continued to operate it until 2008 for a variety of uses. The building was popular as a bar and restaurant, drawing entertainers and celebrity patrons including Leonard Bernstein, Billie Holliday, Nicolas Cage, Barbara Hershey and John Waters.
From 1970 to 2008, she said, the late Morris Martick operated it as Martick’s Restaurant Francais, one of the first places where Baltimore restaurant-goers were introduced to French cuisine and one of the only restaurants where patrons had to ring a door bell to get in.
Martick, who was born in the building in 1923 and lived there for most of his 88 years, “enhanced the city’s culinary experience by introducing French food to everyday people of Baltimore,” she said. “He was also an important patron of the Baltimore art and jazz music scene, making his bar and nearby gallery a home for emerging musical and artistic talent.”
Montgomery noted in her report to the commission that a previous owner had planned to rehabilitate the property and applied to use state and local tax credits for preservation. He later sold it, she said, after determining he could “not move forward with the project due to the costs.”
She said the staff recommends that the developer explore ways to incorporate “all or a portion” of it into the larger development.
Commissioner Matthew Mosca said he thought the Martick’s building could be a valuable asset for the developers if they restored it.
“This is an absolute landmark, one that has vast history and people who remember it very well,” he said to the developers. “This could be worth a tremendous amount of money for you if you bring it back.”
Commissioner Larry Gibson said he thought the building is worth saving because it’s one of the last buildings in the area that dates from before the Civil War.
“We have very little left that shows what was there in Baltimore,” he said. “There’s not much left. We’ve got to keep some pieces of Baltimore… Isn’t that a consideration?”
Much of the land for the six-story project was assembled by the Baltimore Development Corp. (BDC), which sought proposals and selected Park Avenue Partners to be the purchaser. The Martick’s building was not part of the BDC offering.
Janian said he acquired the Martick’s building in December with the idea of making it part of the larger development. He said he tried to find a way to preserve the Martick’s building but, after consulting with engineers, concluded it is too deteriorated to save. He said it is structurally unsound and “there is a very great presence of mold” in the building, among other factors.
“I understand the cultural argument [for preservation] because restaurants are nostalgic places that people keep in their minds, but it is not feasible to redevelop this specific building due to the immense deterioration of the structure,” he said. “It has been sitting vacant for 10 years and it looks like it has been sitting for 40.”
Janian told the commission his group plans to renovate six other buildings the city awarded to the team, including a large brick building previously owned by the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company and a series of commercial buildings along Park Avenue. He said he and his partners believe the historic district would not be negatively impacted by demolition of the Martick’s building.
“We believe the historic district is negatively impacted by vacant and boarded up buildings,” he said.
The team hopes to start construction on its project by the end of 2019 and open by early 2021. Janian said the apartments will be studios and one-bedroom units, and his team is aiming to keep rents lower than they are in most other places downtown.
According to Montgomery, the developers’ request to tear down the Martick’s building drew three letters of opposition and four letters of support. The supporters included City Councilman Eric Costello, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, the Market Center Merchants Association and the Time Group, a developer.
Tuesday’s hearing was the first step of a two-step demolition permit application process. Under CHAP’s guidelines, developers who have been turned down at a first demolition hearing can come back for a second hearing at which they can present information to show why they believe it isn’t feasible to save a particular structure. Janian said he intends to return to CHAP next month to present his case.