Photo by Ed Gunts

Leaders of Baltimore’s Chinatown Collective had what they thought was a promising idea for their second annual Charm City Night Market, coming up on Sept. 21.

They identified a prominent building where they envisioned painting a large mural, hoping to help draw people to the West Side district where the event will take place. The building owner agreed to it. Best of all, an artist collective from Washington D.C. offered to paint it for free.

But it’s not happening–not this year, at least.

Members of Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation yesterday overruled CHAP staff’s recommendation to approve the project, voting 10-0 against the mural. They said they had numerous questions about the proposal and didn’t want to approve anything that might damage the city-owned building.

The panel’s disapproval means the second Charm City Night Market will proceed without the new mural, which would have been one of the largest in the city.

“It’s disappointing,” said Leandro Lagera, a Chinatown Collective founding member, after the meeting. “We understand their position. But obviously, we’d like to have the mural or we wouldn’t be here.”

This year’s event follows the inaugural night market from last September that drew 12,000 people to the 200 block of Park Avenue, near the heart of Baltimore’s historic Chinatown district. The event celebrates Asian food, arts and culture with performers, artists and vendors.

This second annual event will have a larger footprint than last year, stretching eastward from Park Avenue along Lexington Street to Center Plaza. Lagera said organizers expect it to draw 20,000 visitors.

The mural was planned for a vacant, four-story retail building at the northeast corner of Park Avenue and Lexington Street, a structure with no windows above the first level. Situated at 116 W. Lexington St., it’s part of a three-building assemblage that also includes 114 W. Lexington and 207 Park Ave. The Baltimore Development Corporation has offered all three structures for redevelopment, but has not received acceptable bids.

According to preservation planner Lauren Schiszik, the corner building was constructed in 1941 as a local branch of the Ann Lewis Shops, a national chain of women’s department stores, and is an example of the Moderne style of design.

The proposed 35-foot-by-75-foot mural would have gone on the building’s west façade. CHAP’s approval was needed because the building is in the city’s Five and Dime Historic District; any changes to building exteriors in historic districts must be approved.

Lagera and fellow Chinatown Collective co-founder Stephanie Hsu did not show the preservation panel any renderings indicating what the mural would look like. They said the artist is a group from Washington called No Kings Collective, which was prepared to paint the mural for free over the next week and a half if CHAP approved it.

“Our interest is putting up a mural that will… commemorate and celebrate the AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] tradition in Baltimore,” Lagera told the panel.

“We desire to activate sites that have otherwise not been activated and to bring energy and excitement to places that were once vibrant,” Hsu added.

But when asked about the design, Lagera said the artists were still working on it, aiming to have a rendering by the end of this week and start painting in time to finish by Sept. 21. CHAP’s hearing was one of the last steps needed to move ahead, he said.

“We were fortunate enough to have No Kings agree to it at the last minute, so it’s been an expedited process to get through to this review,” he told the panel.

Schiszik said CHAP staff recommended approval, even though city guidelines discourage painting previously unpainted stone or masonry. But panelists said they wanted more information before they felt comfortable authorizing any work.

Decorations at the inaugural Charm City Night Market. Photo by Corey Jennings.

Several said they would like to know what the mural would look like before granting approval. When told it’s not within CHAP’s purview to review the mural for aesthetic content, and that the Baltimore Development Corporation would determine whether to accept the final design, panelists said they still believed CHAP ought to see it to ensure it’s appropriate for the district.

“Even though we might not be able to determine the content, and there is such a thing as First Amendment rights and freedom of expression, certain kinds of content may not fit historically within the space… It does have to be taken into consideration, to a certain extent,” said panel member Aaron Bryant.

Panelist Matthew Mosca suggested CHAP consider adjusting its guidelines “so that we do have something to say about the content of murals, because more and more they are coming up.”

Members also said they had questions about the mural’s size and physical impact on the city-owned building.

Commissioner Larry Gibson said the Park Avenue façade is the biggest and most visible side of the building. “In every respect, it’s the main façade, the one that most people see as you go uptown.”

Ann Powell, also a member, noted the building has a stone exterior, most likely limestone, and painting it would be a significant change. “To me this is a very intentional and restrained composition,” she said, adding a mural “seems counter to what gave it its architectural integrity.”

CHAP Chairman Tom Liebel said he saw the project described at one point as a “temporary mural” but doesn’t believe that would be the case.

“Once the paint goes on, it is not easily removed. It is a permanent installation. So if you see some people up here hesitant about saying ‘go for it,’ it’s not that we’re not very supportive of the artistic endeavor here, but that this is a very significant deliberation.”

An important question for city planners to consider, he said, is whether adding a mural could help the BDC find a buyer. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing, would be the question… Fundamentally, it’s a challenging property, based on the fact that it has no windows, other than at the storefront level.”

Commissioners also raised concerns about the 11-day timetable for completing the mural. They noted the building has deteriorating mortar and “bio-growth” on the outside that should be addressed before any paint is applied.

Several residents offered different opinions about the project. Will Dorfman, who lives in Charles Towers, offered support, saying a mural “brings people there, it creates a sort of activation for the neighborhood.”

 But Don Kline, a downtown resident, said he thought the project was moving too fast.

Gibson agreed. In the future, he said, “we may decide that we want to preserve one of the few limestone façade-type buildings downtown and we don’t want anything on that… I think this is just a little too premature.”

A hasty decision now could lead to problems later, Mosca said: “Once you paint stone, you can’t unpaint stone.”

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