The Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation is seeking to raze five large rowhouses that it owns in the Mount Vernon historic district to make way for a prayer garden. Photo by Ed Gunts.

An attorney for the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation said Tuesday that the church is willing to work with preservationists to explore alternatives to razing five Mount Vernon rowhouses for which it sought demolition permits last month.

Caroline Hecker, an attorney representing the church, confirmed Tuesday that the church has agreed to give preservationists time to explore alternatives to demolition, after members of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association said they strongly opposed the demolition plan.

“We said we would work with them,” Hecker said. “I don’t think we put a time limit on it, but we said we would work with them.”

Hecker’s statement was a sign that church leaders may be willing to consider other uses for the vacant buildings it owns at 35, 37, 39, 41 and 43 W. Preston St., directly across the street from the Cathedral’s main entrance.

It comes nearly a month after Hecker, on behalf of the church, filed an application with Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) to raze the five buildings to make way for a prayer garden. In her letter, Hecker argued that the buildings are so deteriorated they had lost their architectural integrity and no longer contribute to the historic district.

The application triggered a multi-step process in which CHAP schedules public hearings to determine whether to approve the demolition request.

The first hearing, which took place Tuesday, was held solely to determine whether the buildings targeted for demolition are contributing structures in the historic district. A later hearing will be held, if necessary, to consider plans for altering the structures, up to and including demolition.

At the hearing Tuesday, CHAP voted unanimously that the buildings are still ‘contributing structures’ within the Mount Vernon historic district, despite what Hecker argued in her application letter.

The vote came after CHAP received 156 letters and emails from people urging the board not to allow the church to tear the buildings down, and listened to testimony from nearly a dozen people who want to see them preserved.

If CHAP had agreed with the church that the buildings didn’t contribute to the historic district because of their condition, the church would have been allowed to tear down the five buildings without any more public meetings.

Because CHAP found that the existing buildings do contribute to the Mount Vernon historic district, the church must participate in a second hearing if it wants to move ahead with its demolition plan. That hearing hasn’t been scheduled.

Charles Duff, the president of Jubilee Baltimore and an expert on John Appleton Wilson, the architect of the five houses, said he was “delighted” with CHAP’s vote. “It gives us hope. It gives us time,” he said. “I’m not surprised, because I think the case was very clear.”

Duff said he was also encouraged by the church’s willingness to work with the community to explore alternatives to demolition.

“It’s a very positive step,” he said. “I’m encouraged.”

Duff said the church allowed him to go through the houses last week with several experts on rehabbing rowhouses, including Ben Frederick III, a real estate broker; Jake Wittenberg, president of Edgemont Builders, and Eric Lowe, an architect who lives in Mount Vernon.

Duff said the church has agreed to provide additional access to the buildings so experts can further assess their structural condition and potential for redevelopment for different purposes. He said the preservationists have been given 60 days to explore options to demolition and work with church leaders to come up with possible alternatives that would meet the church’s needs.

“I asked the people from the Cathedral to work with us, and to propose things that they would want to do with those buildings and we would take a look at them — that I would bring together a bunch of people who had some range of expertise and we would try to advise the Cathedral on good things that they could do with those buildings,” he said. “One of the key questions is: Do these buildings have structural stability? Do we have anything to worry about?”

Duff said he is taking this on in his capacity as head of Jubilee Baltimore, a non profit that works to revitalize neighborhoods. “I am considering this part of the work of Jubilee Baltimore,” he said. “Mount Vernon is one of our neighborhoods.”

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Ed Gunts

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

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