Johns Hopkins University is moving ahead with plans to tear down seven vacant rowhouses in Charles Village and replace them with a green space.
Hopkins representatives recently told members of the Charles Village Civic Association (CVCA) that the university has selected a demolition contractor and will soon begin tearing down the row of houses in the first block of West 29th Street, just south of the Wyman Park Dell and Hopkins’ Homewood campus.
Yellow signs notifying the public of pending demolition work recently went up on the fronts of the houses at 5, 7, 9, 11, 15, 17 and 19 West 29th Street (there is no No. 13).
During a virtual meeting of the CVCA in late January, the Hopkins representatives said the university has selected Brawner Construction Company to be the demolition contractor and has contacted two companies, Second Chance and Brick + Board, about salvaging fireplace mantels, doors and other architectural elements from the interiors before the major demolition work begins.
They also presented images of a green space that will be created after the houses are razed, showing one mature magnolia tree that won’t be taken down and grass in place of the houses and their yards. They said they expect the architectural salvage work to begin in mid-February and that the seven houses will be gone and replaced by the green space by April or May.
The university representatives indicated that Hopkins also may tear down Dell House, the vacant 14-story commercial building on the southwest corner of Charles and 29th streets, but not at the same time as the houses.
The briefing came from Jennifer Mielke, Director of Local Government and Community Affairs, and Lee Coyle, Senior Director of Planning and Architecture for Hopkins. It was the first public meeting Hopkins officials have had with a group from Charles Village about the seven houses since October 2020, when they first brought up the idea of tearing them down.
Coyle and Mielke said the contractors will restrict their work to between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. and will erect a fence around the site while work is underway.
Once sod is laid this spring, the green space “will be open to all,” Coyle said. “We are not putting a fence up. Our groundskeepers at Johns Hopkins University will maintain the site and everybody is invited to use it.”
The demolition contractor has been instructed to spare the magnolia tree, Coyle added.
“We will protect that magnolia tree that people are very interested in,” Coyle said. “It’s a beautiful tree and we have a tree protection plan that our contractor will be obligated to follow.”
After the meeting, several Charles Village residents expressed disappointment that Hopkins is moving ahead with demolition. They said they were hoping Hopkins might have found a way to save the buildings.
“I think it’s a huge missed opportunity,” said Charles Village resident James “J. C.” Sylvan. “There are thousands of examples of people integrating historic buildings into development projects. People love that kind of thing.”
Sylvan said he thinks retaining and restoring the vacant buildings would help give the area “a unique flavor” that would benefit both the neighborhood and the university, something a grassy lawn can’t do.
“If you go to Brown or Harvard or even Morningside Heights, there’s a particular character to those neighborhoods. That’s what people like about them,” he said. “I used to live in the West Village in New York and it’s an expensive place to live now because back in the day, people thought it was worth saving. I’m not saying Charles Village is the same, but it has potential, and I think you undermine that by just knocking a building down.”
“I’m very disappointed that Hopkins has not really looked into the possibility of preserving the buildings,” said Charles Village resident Stephanie Hulman. “It’s demolition by neglect. An institution that actually cares about the community does not do that.”
Hulman said she’s happy that Hopkins has plans for salvaging and recycling building materials so they don’t end up in a landfill — something that wasn’t part of its original plan and something she suggested. But “quite frankly, any responsible organization should have proposed that from the very beginning. We shouldn’t have had to fight for that.“
Patrick Stanzel, another Charles Village resident, said he doesn’t see the point of creating a green space so close to Wyman Park Dell.
“To have a green space right across the street from Wyman Park Dell doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “What would anybody want to do with that green space that they can’t do in Wyman Park Dell?”
Stanzel said he thinks the houses could be repurposed to house small businesses that serve the community.
“It could be a wonderful thing,” he said. “You can reuse them for a coffee shop or you name it — a southern satellite business district, something that ties in better with the neighborhood.”
Hopkins spokeswoman Jill Rosen said in a statement that the university “is deeply committed to working with our neighbors in Charles Village, Remington, and other neighborhoods around our campuses to preserve and enhance the vitality of our community.”
Hopkins announced in fall 2020 their plans to demolish the seven rowhomes on 29th Street, but paused those plans to consider alternatives after community members opposed the demolition.
The university ultimately determined that “the size and condition of the structures makes rehabilitation infeasible, and it is necessary to proceed with the demolition,” Rosen said.
This is the fourth major demolition effort by Hopkins in the last several years, after the Carnegie Institute laboratory building on University Parkway, the Mattin Center on Charles Street and the Brady Building on the East Baltimore medical campus. Also targeted for demolition is a 1940s-era building on the Homewood campus known as Whitehead Hall.
The last time a row of houses in Charles Village was razed was more than 20 years ago, when houses on both sides of the 3200 block of St. Paul Street were torn down to make way for multi-family residential projects by private developers.
News of the Mattin Center demolition received national attention because it was designed by internationally prominent architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, and was only 20 years old.
The seven houses on 29th Street were designed by John R. Forsythe, a Baltimore architect who later designed the Pimlico Theatre near the Pimlico Race Course. They were constructed in 1911 by James Miller and initially sold for $9,500 a piece, according to A Brief History of Charles Village.
Because of their location on 29th Street, the houses help frame Wyman Park Dell and form a gateway to the mostly-residential area south of it. They are part of the Charles Village/Abell historic district on the National Register of Historic Places, but that doesn’t protect them from demolition. If they were in a Baltimore City-sanctioned historic district, Hopkins’ demolition plans would trigger a public hearing by the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.
According to state land records, Hopkins acquired the seven houses over a 20-year period for a total of $2,265, 500, or nearly $325,000 per house.
Hopkins acquired most of the properties between 2000 and 2003. The end house bordering Maryland Avenue, 19 West 29th Street, was sold to Hopkins in 2019 for $587,500.
Stanzel said he thought Hopkins might have wanted to save the houses because at least two of them were the childhood homes of men who later enrolled at Hopkins, excelled there, and remained affiliated with the university for many years.
He said he researched the histories of the seven houses and found that 5 West 29th St. was the childhood home of Karl M. Levy, a longtime Baltimore attorney and former Hopkins lacrosse star.
Levy entered Hopkins in 1922, and in 1926 he was an All-American and captain of the university’s National Championship-winning lacrosse team. According to the 1930 census, Karl still lived at 5 West 29th St. with his brother Ronald, who also enrolled at Hopkins and played football there. For nearly 60 years, Karl Levy remained active in Hopkins alumni activities, and in 1963 he was elected president of the Alumni Association. He was awarded the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1967 and the University’s Heritage Award in 1976.
Stanzel said 17 West 29th St. was built for Joseph T. Singewald Sr., who had two sons with ties to Hopkins, Joseph T. Singewald Jr. and Quentin Singewald. Joseph T. Singewald Jr. was a renowned geologist and longtime Hopkins professor. Quentin also received his doctorate from Hopkins in geology and was well known internationally. The funeral of Joseph T. Singewald Sr. was held in the house in 1955.
During the January meeting, Coyle gave a list of reasons Hopkins decided to tear down the houses.
“As we had said previously, these buildings are uninhabitable,” he said. “They are structurally unstable. We know there is an issue of rodents and pests and of course dumping and graffiti, and homeless often frequent this site. We have received six violations and three monetary penalties about the conditions of these properties from the City of Baltimore.”
Coyle said Hopkins planners believe that tearing the houses down will improve the area and make it safer. But opponents of the demolition say the houses have become deteriorated because Hopkins has let them sit vacantly and not maintained them well.
“They bought the properties and let them go to ruin,” Sylvan said. “They basically brought the nuisance to the neighborhood.”
Stanzel and Hulman said preservationists would like to know if Hopkins has commissioned any structural reports to show how unstable they are.
“They’re saying the buildings are unstable and they can’t be saved. But they haven’t shown us any evidence,” Hulman said. “They don’t have any structural engineering reports that we’ve been shown that say that they’re not salvageable. We would just appreciate knowing that they did the research and looked into other options.”
The Hopkins planners “made it sound like it’s so unsafe to go in there, but yet they also showed things to Second Chance and Brick + Board and they were willing to come in and salvage stuff, so some of the buildings have to be in decent condition,” Hulman said. “Otherwise, it wouldn’t be safe for them to come in and salvage things.”
Stanzel pointed to another Hopkins-owned property, the Abel Wolman House at 3213 North Charles St., and said it could be a model for how to reuse the 29th Street houses. He also noted Hopkins’ plans to preserve and reuse 3001 North Charles St., an end-of-row residence that was built in 1909 for John Hubert, a former City Council member.
2008 master plan
A 2008 master plan for the Homewood campus by Ayers Saint Gross, developed after Hopkins acquired five of the seven houses, shows all seven removed from the block, along with Dell House. In their place on the site plan is one L-shaped rectangle, occupying the northern end of the block and labeled “proposed building.”
Coyle, the campus planner, said in the January meeting that Hopkins does not have any specific plans for the rowhouse properties other than the green space. But he acknowledged that the land could someday be developed to meet a future university need, as the master plan indicates.
As for the Dell House, he said, Hopkins has made no decisions about its fate. He said the university completed some work there within the past year, including repairs to a low wall by the entrance and installation of “safety lighting” at street level to make the area safer to walk by.
“Someday we will redevelop that site,” he said, referred to the Dell House. “We will do that. I cannot tell you today what the plan is because quite frankly we don’t have one. But that is something that will happen at some point. And I think that’s a good thing for all of us. Enlivening that side of the Wyman Park Dell with activity, people would be just a terrific thing. Yes, that will happen someday.“
Asked at the community meeting whether Dell House would be renovated or replaced, Coyle indicated there’s a good chance it will come down.
“That’s one thing that we will certainly study,” he said. “The building itself today is in somewhat disrepair, but more importantly there’s a lot of issues within it that are non-compliant for using it for [housing] or certainly for ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliance, and it’s fairly inefficient if you look at the plans and the layouts. We would certainly look at [renovation], but I think because of the building’s age and, let’s face it, some people would say lack of attractiveness, it’s probably something that would be replaced.”
Rosen said Hopkins has completed exterior repairs to the neighboring Dell House apartments and will continue to invest in university-owned buildings in Charles Village.
Editor’s note: This article has been update to include responses from Johns Hopkins University.