The Loyola School in Mount Vernon on Tuesday cleared a key hurdle in its quest to build a nearly block-long expansion, when Baltimore’s preservation commission approved a request to partially demolish three 19th-century townhouses to make way for the project.
Despite strong community opposition, and against the recommendation of its own staff, the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), voted 4 to 0, with two abstentions, to grant concept approval to a plan to tear down the rear portions of 104, 106 and 108 East Madison Street, part of the Mount Vernon historic district.
The vote means the school has support from the preservation panel to continue developing plans to construct its proposed expansion, even though it will require partial demolition of a currently-intact row of houses.
Mount Vernon resident Drew Rieger, said in July that his research shows the houses are the work of noted architects John Rudolph Niernsee and J. Crawford Neilson. But Caitlin Audette, a preservation planner with CHAP, said at the time that she had not been able to verify that the houses were designed by Niernsee and Neilson.
The project’s approval was a setback for preservationists in the community, who argued that Mount Vernon has lost too many historically-significant buildings recently, including a townhouse at 4 East Eager St. that’s being demolished this week. Residents said they were disheartened that the preservation commission didn’t support their request to reject the design due to the amount of demolition it would require.
“After today’s vote, it’s pretty clear CHAP doesn’t care about community sentiment,” Mount Vernon resident Christopher Hyde said in a message on Facebook, after the meeting. “What’s the point of a preservation commission if it doesn’t practice preservation and ignores all its own bylaws?”
Formerly called the Loyola Early Learning Center and affiliated with St. Ignatius Church at Calvert and Madison streets, the school is based at 801 St. Paul St. with students at the pre-K and kindergarten level.
School leaders, including St. Ignatius pastor emeritus William Watters, announced plans last summer for Loyola to grow into a pre-K to fourth grade school serving low-income children, with an expansion that will be constructed in and around five town houses on East Madison Street – 104, 106, 108, 110 and 112.
The architects said they needed to demolish portions of the original buildings because the school’s program calls for certain large spaces, including a multi-purpose area, that have a footprint too large to fit into any of the existing town houses. They said they focused on razing the rears of the houses in order to keep the facades along Madison Street and Calvert Street intact.
Two months earlier, the same panel voted 7 to 0 to disapprove the plan and asked the school’s leaders and their architects to redesign the project so it would require less demolition.
At this week’s hearing, conducted virtually, the designers, Banta Campbell Architects and Waldon Studio Architects, presented revised plans that showed how they responded to the panel’s comments. According to architects Mark Banta and Donald Kann, the new plan calls for the rears of three of five houses to be taken down, whereas the earlier plan called for the rears of all five houses to be razed.
In all, the architects said, the new plan calls for more than 75 percent of the “historic fabric” of the row to be preserved, whereas the previous plan called for about 47 percent of the original buildings to be retained. Because of the extent of what’s being preserved, they said, the view along Madison and Calvert streets will be close to what it is now and the three-story addition will be approximately the same height as the existing structures.
The preservationists who opposed the project argued that the Catholic church has been one of the biggest culprits in the demolition of historic structures in Baltimore, tearing down the Rochambeau apartments at Charles and Franklin streets and historic houses to expand Mercy Medical Center, among other losses.
Mount Vernon resident Wesley Stuckey said there are many other schools in the city that could be used and questioned why Loyola wants to convert the Madison Street houses. He noted that the school’s mission is to serve low-income children from around the city, not necessarily the children who live in immediate neighborhood.
“It’s great that they are willing to work on restoring parts of the façade, but this is a very important block of houses that are completely intact,” Stuckey said. If Loyola’s plan is carried out, “they no longer ever will be the same and they will no longer ever be able to be restored to the quality of craftsmanship or livability that they exhibit now…I don’t want to see this row of houses destroyed and that’s what this plan will do.”
Rieger said the rears of the buildings that are targeted for demolition shouldn’t be torn down because they help tell an important story about the different classes of people who lived under the same roof.
The fronts of the houses “were for elegant entertaining” and contained the “grand stairwells and parlors, dining rooms and bed chambers for the wealthy owners,” but the backs of the houses “were of no less importance,” he said.
Historically, they contained “the servants’ staircases, the kitchens, the skulleries, the work rooms, the servants’ dining rooms and the bedrooms for the servants and in some cases, slaves in Mount Vernon….This plan destroys the back half of these homes and it erases what I think of as the physical vestiges of the working class people that toiled in these homes for over 100 years,” Rieger said.
Loyola School board chairman Joseph Lombard said planners considered at least five sites but felt the Madison Street row would be best. He said the houses are near St. Ignatius Church and other places the school plans to use for teaching, including the children’s park one block east.
If it gets approval to expand on Madison Street, he said, the school would offer to share its multi-purpose room with the community on weekends; help maintain the children’s park across Calvert Street; and apply a scored-stucco effect to the Madison Street facades to replicate the way they looked in the 1800s, at a cost of at least $50,000. It also plans to start a music program that would be focused around a children’s choir and would be open the community, he said.
“We’re willing and committed to being good neighbors and good stewards,” he said.
A turning point in the discussion came when the panel was addressed by Charles Duff, a respected Baltimore historian and preservationist. Duff said he was initially opposed to the project because he knows there are other possible locations for a school but not many residences like the ones on Madison Street.
For him, Duff said, the issue came down to either supporting the school at the expense of the houses, or supporting the houses at the expense of the school’s expansion. He said he knows that the Catholic church has closed other schools in the city but he believes the design has improved and doesn’t think Watters and Loyola School would abandon the project if it were built.
In the end, Duff gave the project a lukewarm endorsement. “The project is OK with me,” he told the preservation panel. “I would rather it were somewhere else, but it is OK with me.”
Tom Liebel, CHAP’s chairman, said the commission was in a difficult position because it asked the architects in September to come up with a plan to demolish less of the block and they did so. The dilemma now, he said, is that if the commission asked them to try to preserve even more of the original buildings, it likely would be at the expense of the school and the teaching spaces it wants to create.
Panel members voting in favor of the demolition were Anath Ranon, Laura Thul Penza, Jill Dennis and Kate Edwards. Panel members James French and Aaron Bryant abstained. Liebel did not cast a vote.
The panel asked the school to return to a future meeting and show more detailed designs, now the concept approval has been granted. The school is aiming to complete the expansion in time to be open for the 2023-2024 school year.