By Steve Kilar, The Baltimore Sun
7:59 PM EDT, June 18, 2012
The five-story Park Plaza building in Mount Vernon is bustling again, less than two years after a five-alarm fire destroyed the historic structure's interior and displaced tenants — including Donna's, a popular cafe and coffee shop that will not be returning to the building.
"We were really clear from minutes after the fire happened that we wanted to be back in this space," said Roger Schulman, president and CEO of the Fund for Educational Excellence, a nonprofit organization that has been in the building for more than a decade.
Following a $6 million renovation, the building started filling up again last month, marking yet another rebirth for the 170-year-old edifice at Charles and Madison streets, which housed Baltimore's 19th century elite and later served as a hotel and disco.
"We're just thrilled," said Schulman of his organization's revamped space. The Fund for Educational Excellence signed a five-year lease for the same fourth-floor location it had before the fire.
Flames engulfed the building in the early morning hours of Dec. 7, 2010. More than 100 firefighters were called in to fight the blaze, which took 12 hours to bring under control. A Baltimore Fire Department spokesman was not able to confirm the fire's cause Monday afternoon, though preliminary investigations concluded the cause was electrical.
The second through fifth floors of the 45,000-square-foot structure — the amalgamation of a red-brick mansion on the corner and an adjacent townhouse on North Charles — have largely been reoccupied by former tenants, said Dominic Wiker, development director for the property, which is owned in part and managed by principals of the Owings Mills-based real estate investment company the Time Group and its property management affiliate, WPM Real Estate Group.
"Tenants started moving back in at the end of April," Wiker said. "There's been a steady stream of folks between then and now."
In addition to the Fund for Educational Excellence, Maryland Capital Management, EML Partners, Ramer Equities and Zenith Health Care have returned to Park Plaza. Charlesmead Advisors LLC and Floura Teeter Landscape Architects are among the building's new tenants.
"We have these amazing views of the Washington Monument and the square," said Aaron Teeter, co-owner of Floura Teeter, which leased the entire third floor of the Park Plaza mansion — 4,500 square feet.
The landscape architecture firm, which outgrew its space in the Congress Hotel building a few blocks away on West Franklin Street, began looking for a new home about six months ago, Teeter said. The Park Plaza location allows the firm to double its floor area, he said.
The mansion at 800 N. Charles St. was built, starting in 1842, as a 25-room residence by a German merchant. In the 1880s, Arunah S. Abell, founder of The Baltimore Sun, used it as an "in town" home. After Abell died in 1888, it was used as a private club until the early 1930s and then converted into a hotel, which it remained through the 1940s.
In each of the next four decades, the building changed hands and was redeveloped. It was used as a banquet hall, contained restaurants and housed one of the city's first discotheques.
In the 1970s, it was transformed into its modern, mixed-use state and was one of the first projects of the now-defunct Baltimore development firm Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse, which renovated Park Plaza again in 1984.
The building "contributes" to the historic character of the Mount Vernon area, according to the city and federal government. That means its exterior cannot be changed without approval from the Baltimore Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.
About a third of the building remains unleased, Wiker said, with half the empty space on the upper floors. Two other restaurants — in addition to Donna's — that occupied retail space at street- and below-street level when the fire struck are not returning.
Donna's leaves behind 1,250 square feet on the corner of North Charles and Madison streets, though it might reappear elsewhere in Mount Vernon, said Alan Hirsch, the restaurant's co-owner. The Park Plaza's owners and managers "tried very hard to make it work for us," he said.
"We're working on another location in the neighborhood, and we hope to conclude a deal within a month," Hirsch said. "Donna's is almost 20 years old, and our concept of what Donna's is has to evolve."
Indigma, an Indian restaurant that last summer moved across the street from the Park Plaza, will not reoccupy its former 2,400-square-foot storefront on North Charles Street.
The largest retail space, about 3,800 square feet, is on the building's below-grade floor and is accessible through the building's lobby, off North Charles Street. My Thai, that space's former tenant, will open soon in Little Italy's Tack Factory, next door to Heavy Seas Alehouse.
The prime prospects and most likely tenants for these three spaces are restaurants, Wiker said, but several stores have also been considering them for retail locations.
Baltimore Sun reporter Richard Gorelick contributed to this article.
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