Johns Hopkins, of Baltimore Heritage, and Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association president Jack Danna talk to a church member on Sunday while handing out flyers opposing the demolition of five rowhouses. Photo by Ed Gunts.
Johns Hopkins, of Baltimore Heritage, and Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association president Jack Danna talk to a church member on Sunday while handing out flyers opposing the demolition of five rowhouses. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Preservationists aiming to prevent demolition of five historic rowhouses in Mount Vernon on Sunday took their concerns directly to the people who can influence the outcome, leaders of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation.

Representatives of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association (MVBA), Baltimore Heritage and Jubilee Baltimore stood outside the church before its 8 a.m. service and handed out flyers listing all the reasons they believe the church should preserve the rowhouses it owns at 35, 37, 39, 41 and 43 W. Preston St.

“We, your neighbors in Mount Vernon, ask you to join us in making our neighborhood stronger & more beautiful by preserving the irreplaceable houses across from your magnificent cathedral,” the flyer began. “Help us save these historic buildings.”

A lawyer for the church at 24 W. Preston St., Caroline Hecker, notified Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) last fall that church leaders are applying to tear down the five vacant houses to make way for a prayer garden.  She said the buildings were in a state of disrepair when they were given to the church in the 1990s and early 2000s and “have continued to deteriorate to a point where they have lost their structural integrity and cannot be preserved.” 

The church needs CHAP’s approval to raze the houses because they are in a local historic district. The commission held a public hearing and voted unanimously in December that the buildings are contributing structures to the historic district, an action that requires applicants to appear at a second public hearing if they still want a demolition permit.

A condemnation notice at 41 W. Preston St. Photo by Ed Gunts.
A condemnation notice at 41 W. Preston St. Photo by Ed Gunts.

At the second hearing, the applicants will be given a chance to explain why it would be a hardship to save the houses and show what they propose to build in their place. That second hearing has not been scheduled, but the city has condemned the building at 41 W. Preston St. as of June 1.

The preservationists who gathered outside the church on Sunday say they have tried to get church leaders to reconsider but hear from city officials and members of the congregation that they’re moving ahead with their demolition plans. They said they decided to step up their preservation efforts by taking their campaign directly to parishioners as they arrived for church on Sunday.

The preservationists say they believe strongly that the 1890s-era buildings designed by John Appleton Wilson are historically and architecturally significant and should be renovated for new uses, not torn down. They say they believe some members of the congregation agree that the buildings should be saved and hope those members can persuade others so church leaders will rethink their plans.

The rowhouses at 35, 37, 39, 41 and 43 W. Preston St. that church leaders have proposed to demolish to make way for a prayer garden. Photo by Ed Gunts.
The rowhouses at 35, 37, 39, 41 and 43 W. Preston St. that church leaders have proposed to demolish to make way for a prayer garden. Photo by Ed Gunts.

“We’re your neighbors,” Baltimore Heritage executive director Johns Hopkins told one parishioner as she walked from her car towards the church around 7:45 a.m. “We care about the buildings across the street.”

Other preservationists were Susan Warren and Jack Danna of the MVBA and Charles Duff, the president of Jubilee Baltimore, a non-profit that works with Mount Vernon and has developed several proposals showing how the houses can be recycled for new uses. Boards of the MVBA and Baltimore Heritage both oppose the demolition plan.

The preservationists were polite in the way they approached church-goers. They kept a distance from the church itself and didn’t carry picket signs or banners. They didn’t yell or harass or run after anyone. They at the northwest corner of Maryland Avenue and Preston Street, across from the endangered houses, and at the northeast corner, where parishioners were parking. They mostly let the flyer speak for itself.

The flyer that preservationists distributed Sunday near the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation.
The flyer that preservationists distributed Sunday near the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation.

Set against a photo of the houses, with language aimed at church members, the flyer reads:

Mount Vernon is one of America’s great historic neighborhoods and Baltimore first historic district.

These houses at 35-43 W. Preston St. are great architecture and help to make Mount Vernon valuable, distinctive and attractive.

The houses are valuable. You can earn money by rebuilding them or selling them to organizations that will restore them.

Our strategy of building on history is working. How do we know? Mount Vernon has grown from 7,600 residents in 2000 to over 10,000 in 2020, and Mount Vernon is still growing!

Occupied buildings make streets safer. Vacant buildings and lots make streets dangerous.

Both sides of your block are beautiful and significant. Please treat both sides with respect.

Thank you for working with us.

Your neighbors at the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association.

Shortly before the 8 a.m. service began, the presiding priest of the congregation, Rev. Father Anastasios Bourantas, came out of the church and walked across the street to the Annunciation Orthodox Center, located on the same block as the five buildings targeted for demolition.

Rev. Father Anastasios Bourantas talks to preservationists Charles Duff and Susan Warren outside the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation before services on Sunday morning. Photo by Ed Gunts.

On his way back, Bourantas stopped and talked with two of the preservationists, Duff and Warren.  He explained that he had to get a clerical garment from across the street before the service started. “You’re welcome to come in” to attend the service, he told them.  

Bourantas spoke privately with Duff, and headed back into the church. Duff and Warren then met with the rest of the group and shortly afterwards, they disbanded. They had been planning to wait for the start of the liturgy service at 9:30 a.m. and talk to more parishioners as they arrived, but Duff said they had a change of plans. He said Bourantas had asked the group to stop handing out flyers, saying he didn’t think it was appropriate for them to confront worshippers as they headed into church. In return, Duff said, Bourantas promised to set up a meeting where they could address members of the congregation and explain their reasons for wanting to save the houses.

“The priest has asked us not to do this and has said that we can talk to the whole congregation at a meeting, and so we are going to honor his word and write to him and the parish leadership this week, requesting a time when we can meet with the whole congregation,” Duff said. “If we can do that, that’s great. And if we can’t, we’ll be back.”

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