Preservationists Call West Side An Endangered Historic Place

by Lisa McChristian
     Baltimore’s former downtown shopping district is gaining national attention now that it has been named one of America’s 11 most endangered historic places. The dubious designation was announced on June 14 at a press conference at Preservation Maryland headquarters.
     “Rehabilitating these landmarks instead of destroying them could bring new economic life to Baltimore’s west side, just as it has in dozens of other cities,” said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He claimed the Trust’s “endangered places” list has saved 102 noteworthy sites since its inception 11 years ago.
      Until the 1970’s the west side district was full of specialty grocers, department stores, banks, hotels, movie theaters, and upscale residences. Times and circumstances changed. Over the years, many buildings have deteriorated. Businesses still operating have trouble attracting customers after nightfall.
      Hope for the west side is embodied in City Council Bill 98-898, which will amend the Market Center Urban renewal plan. There is hope--but also alarm, because the bill, which has been passed, gives developers approval to condemn or renovate up to 150 buildings in the historic area. Preservationists are not only concerned about the potential loss of significant structures but also the fact that more than 100 small businesses could be displaced.
      Several buildings that could meet the wrecking ball are the Golden Horse Inn, built in the 1700’s; Sunny’s Surplus, built circa 1830; Isaac Hamburger and Sons, built circa 1860; Mayflower Theatre, built in the mid-19th century; Alberti, Brink, and Company, built in 1867; the Congress Hotel, constructed in 1903-1905; and 409 North Howard Street, built in 1910.
      The press conference was a team effort between the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation Maryland, and Baltimore Heritage. Speakers included Tyler Gearhart, executive director for Preservation Maryland; William Pencek, president of Baltimore Heritage; Senator Clarence M. Mitchell IV, and Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer.
      Pencek stated that many people have become too accustomed to the historical buildings around them. Baltimore citizens, he said, need to become “good stewards of the heritage with which we’ve been blessed.”
      Senator Mitchell called for a partnership with the preservationists. He said he favors the renovation and revitalization of the west side, but he wants to work with preservationists for a possible compromise. “We must have a different Baltimore...no 9-to-5 Baltimore,” said Mitchell.
      Schaefer, a former advocate of urban renewal, said he regrets his actions in the past towards preservation, and laments the destruction of historical buildings. He said he believes Baltimore has become a “bulldozer city” that tears things down instead of rebuilding or repairing them. “Once it’s gone, its gone forever,” said Schaefer.
      Third Time Listed: The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Most Endangered” sites are chosen because they are threatened by neglect, lack of maintenance, insufficient funds, inappropriate development, or insensitive public policy. The Baltimore area has been featured on the list two other times, first with the U.S.S. Constellation and then with the Battlefield at Antietem.
      Local preservationists note that Hollywood has fallen in love with Baltimore’s historic look and appeal. Historic sections of the city have been locations for period films like “Avalon” and “Washington Square.” Film director John Waters frequently uses his hometown as a location; two of his films--“Cry Baby” and “Hairspray”--used local diners, shops, and buildings to give them a real 1950’s look.
      Several local residents and merchants view the demolition and revitalization plan as racist because it will displace many immigrants and African-American merchants, and replace them with national chain stores. Others are concerned that the revitalization plan will clear out the low-income customers if it brings in “upscale” shoppers and residents.
      The Market Center Merchants Association, comprised of 22 local businesses, is taking no official position. The organization is divided; several Association members will be displaced; those that will not be moved generally feel the renewal plan will help attract business to Baltimore.
      The City has informed affected merchants that they would try not to move them prior to Christmas 1999. After that, merchants will have the first three months of the new millennium to relocate.
      Alternative Strategy Offered: Preservation Maryland and Baltimore Heritage have produced their own report and preservation strategy for the revitalization of the west side. According to their report, a community choosing $1,000,000 worth of rehabilitation over $1,000,000 worth of demolition will initially keep $120,000 more in the community, 4.7 more local jobs will be created, and retail sales will increase by $142,000. The report calls for the revision and re-evaluation of city ordinances, and encourages the development of an urban renewal plan that has historic preservation at its core instead of demolition.
      The preservationists say that downtown Baltimore should be entered in the National Register of Historic Places. Such designation would mean there could be a minimal amount of demolition of historic buildings.
     Other steps Preservation Maryland and Baltimore Heritage want to take include amending the Maryland State Income Tax credit for historic rehabilitation to allow alternative distribution when used with the Federal Income Tax Credit for historic rehabilitation. They also favor creating a city-wide Main Street program and a statewide capital access program. Establishing sales-tax-free zones or creating other incentives in target areas including downtown is another consideration, as is creating a dedicated downtown loan pool.
     Moratorium on Demolition Sought: Until an agreeable alternative plan is formed, the preservation groups want a moratorium on demolition of historic buildings downtown.
      The History Channel featured Baltimore’s west side in a one-hour documentary entitled “America’s Most Endangered.” Noah Wyle, a star of “ER,” hosted the special, which is part of The History Channel’s “Save Our Heritage” campaign.

      Other sites on The National Trust’s “most endangered” list this year are the corner of Main and Main, Nationwide; Richard H. Allen Auditorium, Sitka, Alaska; Angel Island Immigration Station, San Francisco Bay, California; Country Estates of River Road, Louisville, Kentucky; Four National Historic Hospitals in New York State; Hulett Ore Unloaders, Cleveland, Ohio; Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; Pullman Administration Building and Factory, Chicago Illinois; Travelers Rest, Lolo, Montana; and San Diego Arts and Warehouse district, San Diego, California.
      To contact Preservation Maryland call (410) 685-2886, Baltimore Heritage call (410) 685-2886, or The National Trust for Historic Preservation call (202) 588-6000.

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This story was published on June 30, 1999.