War Memorial

War Memorial (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam / January 13, 2009)

City Hall is considering selling or leasing 15 historic Baltimore landmarks, including the iconic Shot Tower and stately War Memorial building, which officials believe are underused and could bring the city sorely needed cash.

The idea has excited those who say the sites have been neglected and allowed to fall into disrepair. But some preservationists are worried about an uncertain future for buildings they hold dear.

"I've never heard about them thinking about anything like this," said Richard S.B. Smith Sr., director of the Friends of Orianda House in Leakin Park, one of the properties to be evaluated. "It blows me out of the water. It would be a shock to me and a loss to the community and the history of Baltimore."

City officials say their intention is to enhance the properties and turn them into profitable enterprises, but acknowledge that that might not be possible. Of the 15 buildings, 12 are protected by historic landmark designation, which requires developers to have their plans approved by a commission before making changes.

"All these landmarks are beautiful, and I hope we can put them to productive use," said Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, who supports the move to explore possible sales. "We have to decide whether we should dispose of them or maintain them. Some of them are very nice but require a lot of work."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration will ask the city's spending board to approve a $46,500 consulting contract Wednesday in which the Annapolis-based appraisal firm Westholm & Associates would determine the market value of the buildings. The city hopes to generate revenue from buyers or tenants who might have new uses in mind, such as turning them into offices.

The properties include such well-known sites as the Cylburn Mansion at Cylburn Arboretum, the Roland Park water tower and President Street Station.

"We're looking for strategies and options," said Thomas J. Stosur, the city's director of planning. "Should the city retain them? Should we lease them to existing tenants? Or should we try to sell some outright?"

Orianda House was once the summer home of millionaire inventor and railroad engineer Thomas Winans, who in the 1800s was considered the richest man in America. Smith said the property now houses the offices of Outward Bound, a leadership program. The building also is used for small weddings, church services and business meetings.

"I don't think [city officials] realize what they have here," Smith said.

Likewise, Roland Park resident Doug Munro, who runs the Roland Water Tower Preservation Campaign website, said he's worried about the landmark's future.

"To use the water tower for anything, you'd have to cut up the tank, which would be a tremendous pity," he said. "The tank is an integral part of the tower."

Other properties include the Upton Mansion, built in the 1830s, which has suffered decades of vandalism and neglect; the Gothic-style Clifton Park Valve House, finished in 1888, which sits in disrepair; and the Old Town Friends' Meeting House, which dates to 1781 and is the oldest religious structure in Baltimore.

Stosur said he didn't believe any potential buyers would choose to demolish the buildings, but acknowledged that some are not protected under laws governing historic properties.

The Superintendent's House in Clifton Park, the Public Works Museum and the West Arlington Water Tower are not listed in city records as having historic landmark status. Stosur said they could be protected for five years if a developer accepted a historic restoration tax credit.

"The idea is, by and large, to keep the historic property," Stosur said.

Stosur pointed out that the Peale Museum, the first planned museum in the Western Hemisphere, sits unused. The McKim Free School — built in 1833 as a replica of a Greek temple — has been used for recreational programs but needs significant repairs, he said.

"If it's just a vacant property sitting there, it's really kind of a liability for the city," he said. "Just having somebody inside of it would help the city. Hopefully, we could also earn some revenue off it as well."

He said a business, such as a law firm that frequently does work with City Hall, might want to set up shop in one of the landmarks. But Stosur doubted that any would be operated as a museum.