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Collapse: The rise and deadly fall of a Baltimore rowhouse

As they sat in a worn Cadillac parked at the curb, the men heard no warning.

Thomas “Phil” Lemmon enjoyed the oldies on the radio. Daron Johnson sipped a Natural Ice beer.

Over Lemmon’s car loomed a hazard familiar in Baltimore: A decrepit two-story building. A rowhouse that had witnessed a century of city history, housed generations of immigrant families and, more recently, become mired in liens and foreclosures.

Neither man noticed the house shudder in the wind.

Then came the boom, and a whiteout of dust. Bricks smashed the windshield of Lemmon’s Cadillac and crumpled the red soft-top.

Johnson, dazed, staggered out. But rubble pinned Lemmon behind the wheel.

“Phil! Phil!” neighbors screamed.

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The vacant rowhouse at 900 N. Payson Street collapsed killing Thomas "Phil" Lemmon two years ago.

More than two years have passed since 900 N. Payson St. collapsed and killed Lemmon, but the aftershocks linger. His grown children continue to search for whoever was responsible for the unsafe vacant house. The tragedy caused city officials to look for other dangerous vacants.

They say they have spent more than $9 million to demolish or stabilize 200 that posed the greatest threat.

“The push here was to make the situation safe," said Michael Braverman, Baltimore’s housing commissioner. “There are so many indignities in living beside vacant and abandoned buildings that people shouldn’t fear for their lives.”

Like other Rust Belt cities that have seen their industries collapse and families flee for the suburbs, Baltimore has long grappled with its abandoned homes. The old house on Payson Street near Midtown-Edmondson is a notorious case study.

The rise and fall of the 111-year-old rowhouse, traced through interviews, deeds, court records and inspection reports, reveals the story of Baltimore, and its blight — how good homes come to ruin, and how one turned deadly.

The rise

Jacob Bauermann, a stocky, mustached German, stepped inside the newly built rowhouse in January 1905. A young husband and a firm Lutheran, he had saved enough money as a butcher and saloonkeeper to buy the home for $2,000.

Italianate in style and faced with orange brick, the rowhouse offered a first-floor storefront with bedrooms above for Jacob and his wife, Maria, two sons, a daughter and a boarder, all recorded in the 1910 census.

Back then, the bricklayers could barely keep pace with an onrush of Irish, German and Italian immigrants. Their orderly rowhouses stamped Baltimore with its turn-of-the-century reputation as a “City of Homes.”

The Bauermanns’ storefront window looked out on working-class households of clerks, machinists and laborers with names such as Hoffmann, Yingling and Flemming, Census records show.

Business prospered, and Jacob Bauermann built a new house for twice as much money in the countryside of Catonsville. By 1920, he had begun renting the rowhouse to the first of what would become a succession of Jewish grocers. At the onset of World War II, the Better family was renting the home.

The shelves of Better’s Grocery held pickled onions; the meat counter offered pig knuckles. Neighborhood children spent their nickels on bottles of Yoo-hoo.

But the rowhouse stood near the heart of a coming change. Overcrowding was driving black families out of downtown Baltimore. For years, Fulton Avenue, four blocks to the east of North Payson, had divided white Baltimore from black Baltimore.

The color line broke in December 1944. A white landlord rented a rowhouse north of Better’s Grocery to a black family. Someone tried to burn it down. White families moved away, but Albert and Lena Better stayed and bought 900 N. Payson St.

A Polish immigrant, Albert was reserved and diligent. “I don’t remember the store ever being closed,” said his son, Herb Better, 74, a Baltimore attorney.

Years passed, and times changed. Supermarkets squeezed out the corner groceries. Crime pushed families, black and white, to the suburbs. By the early 1960s, the Betters gave up on 900 N. Payson St.

“They allowed it to go into foreclosure,” Herb Better said.

Soon an economics professor at Morgan State University opened one of Baltimore’s first savings banks for black families. The bank on North Avenue bought 900 N. Payson St. in 1962.

That year, Baltimore voters elected a city schoolteacher named Verda Welcome to the Maryland Senate — the first black woman in the United States elected to a state senate. And the Afro-American newspaper advertised the rowhouse as a rental home.

Hopes were crushed on April 4, 1968, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Within days, Baltimore erupted.

Rioters looted and burned stores three blocks south of the rowhouse. Sniper fire was reported four blocks to the west. The National Guard swept through. Crowds sang “We Shall Overcome.”

When the smoke cleared — with six people killed, hundreds injured, 1,000 businesses ransacked or burned — 900 N. Payson St. was still standing.

The riots sped the exodus. Tens of thousands abandoned the City of Homes, leaving block after block of rowhouses empty.

To some, these homes brought opportunity. In 1976, Estelle Rubin, a former candy buyer for the old Stewart’s Department Store, paid $101 for the house on Payson Street.

She fixed it up, rented it out, and sold it 11 years later to a clothing retailer, Eugene Boykins. When Boykins died in October 1998, his widow was left to sell off the home and settle his estate.

The rowhouse was appraised at $7,500, but saddled with tax liens that exceeded its value. The house languished, unsold.

“I cannot make someone buy it. If so, I would,” Sharron Boykins, Eugene’s widow, wrote in court papers.

She declined to comment for this article.

“I sent letters to the city to take the property so the estate can be closed. I never heard back,” she wrote. “What does a grieving widow get but distress and heartache over this?”

The fall

Many Baltimore families endure life beside decaying homes. These vacants can hide criminals, drug addicts, and sometimes bodies. They can also collapse.

Often, the roof goes first. It caves onto the second floor, which collapses onto the first floor, which buckles. Everything crashes to the basement.

Housing inspectors call this “pancaking.”

Building collapses from 07/28/2015 to 06/11/2017

In South Baltimore near Carroll Park, Barbara Westbrook lives beside an abandoned rowhouse. At night, the 73-year-old retired factory worker listens to debris clatter behind the wall at the head of her bed.

Three years ago, a man hid from police on its rotted roof. Crash! He fell through two stories.

Nearly half the homes on her desolate block of Ramsay Street are empty and boarded. A house across the street toppled in July 2016. The wreckage burst into a neighbor’s kitchen.

The next month, in West Baltimore, a house on Edmondson Avenue fell over. The force shook 10-year-old neighbor Tyonia Braxton off her sofa.

In East Baltimore last year, winds blew down a vacant house that stood over the back patio of Verna Strawder’s home. A shower of bricks smashed Strawder’s grill and patio table, landing feet from her back door.

Similar homes across the city slump in slow decay. Rats nest inside them. Invasive ailanthus trees sprout from their seams. Their bodies crumble away, leaving hollow faces and eyelike windows. They linger like bones.

City housing inspectors declared the rowhouse at 900 N. Payson St. vacant and unfit for human habitation in November 2008.

 
The old rowhouse at 900 N. Payson St. deteriorated for years before it collapsed in in March 2016. The West Baltimore home fell on Thomas "Phil" Lemmon, a retired truck driver, as he sat in his Cadillac listening to the radio. This is the condition of the home in August 2014. Courtesy of Baltimore Heritage

They posted a notice for Eugene Boykins to repair or demolish the house within 30 days. He had been dead for a decade, but his name remained on the deed.

Inspectors sent him certified mail, but it came back. They investigated and found he had died. Tax liens on the house had been auctioned to investors, and a foreclosure case proceeded through Baltimore Circuit Court.

The case dragged on, and inspectors began checking the house every 60 days. They fined Boykins and the tax investors. As the years went by, they wrote their observations in a log that grew to nearly 300 entries.

“Dumping on side … high grass and weeds … front window needs reboarding … trash in rear yard … rear window open … roof collapsed.”

In January 2013, the inspectors sent the case to city attorneys for court action.

“Only option at this time,” they wrote.

The old rowhouse would deteriorate for three more years.

 
Hands of Theresa Myrick, a cousin of Thomas "Phil" Lemmon, the man who was killed when a rowhouse wall at 900 N. Payson Street fell on his car while he was in it. Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun

Neighbor Theresa Myrick watched it fester at the foot of her block.

“It should have been torn down years ago,” said Myrick, 70, a retired nursing home cook.

By then, she had taken in her cousin, a retired truck driver who had separated from his wife.

Tall and slim, known as “Phil,” to his friends, Thomas Lemmon was born in South Carolina, but moved near Druid Hill Park as a boy. He married in 1972 and had four children.

Forever a Southerner, he wore double-breasted suits and called his grown daughter “gal” and “boo.” He could barbecue a hog and dance the two-step. He rarely left home without a hat.

 
Thomas "Phil" Lemmon, a 69-year-old retired truck driver, was crushed in the collapse of a vacant rowhouse at 900 N. Payson St. For two years, his family has tried to hold the neglectful homeowner accountable. Courtesy photo

For work, he drove delivery trucks; for pleasure, Cadillacs. Over the years, a gold Coupe de Ville, a gray Fleetwood, a blue d'Elegance.

Friends urged him to junk the white 1980s soft-top his uncle left him, but Lemmon treasured it despite the duct-taped armrests.

He would park at the foot of the block, alongside the vacant rowhouse, and tune his radio to soul and gospel.

 
Thomas "Phil" Lemmon with his prized Cadillac. The 69-year-old retired truck driver was crushed in the collapse of a vacant rowhouse at 900 N. Payson St. For two years, his family has tried to hold the neglectful homeowner accountable. Courtesy photo

On the cloudy afternoon of March 28, 2016, the winds gusted to 45 mph. Lemmon, 69, sat in the driver’s seat. His pal Johnson, a 46-year-old landscaper, sat beside him. It was almost 4:30 p.m.

Then, the roar of the building giving way.

Half of the old rowhouse crashed down. Myrick, Lemmon’s cousin, ran outside.

“My God,” she recalled thinking, “Phil’s car blew up!”

Johnson managed to squeeze out. Somewhere under the rubble lay Lemmon.

 
In March of 2016, Thomas "Phil" Lemmon was killed when a rowhouse wall at 900 N. Payson Street fell on his car while he was in it. Theresa Myrick

“Phil!” Myrick shouted. She remembers a faint cry: Please, get me out ...

Neighbors began throwing off bricks.

“Only thing I could see was his hand,” said Earl Walker, a construction worker nearby.

Lemmon’s hand trembled, then went still.

Aftershocks

The bricks fractured his breastbone, bruised his head and broke his ribs. He died of multiple injuries at the hospital.

Lemmon’s daughter Phyllis Wynn wants to know: “Did he suffer?”

At his funeral, a wreath of white and red flowers was shaped like his Cadillac.

 
A wreath was shaped like a Cadillac for the funeral of Thomas "Phil" Lemmon, a retired truck driver killed when the vacant house at 900 N. Payson St. collapsed on him in March 2016. Theresa Myrick

The city spent more than $40,000 to clear the rubble of 900 N. Payson St. and shore up the adjoining rowhouse.

“How many more people are going to die or get hurt for them to do something about these abandoned houses?” Wynn asked. “They need to go. These buildings need to go. Did it take my dad’s death for them to do something?”

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Phyllis Wynn, the daughter of Thomas "Phil" Lemmon, the man who was killed when a rowhouse fell on his car while he was in it. The collapse happened in 2016 in the 900 block of Payson Street. Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun

In the days that followed, city officials set out to identify and demolish the most dangerous vacants. Their work was boosted by Gov. Larry Hogan, who the month before had announced a four-year, $75 million project to wipe out entire city blocks of blight.

City officials sought the isolated vacants that threatened neighbors. They searched the ends of blocks for rickety rowhouses like 900 N. Payson St. — those that catch the brunt of wind gusts.

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Tamás Budavári talking about his research and digital mapping of Baltimore's dangerous vacant rowhouses, an effort that resulted from the deadly collapse of 900 N. Payson St. Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun

The housing inspectors enlisted a Johns Hopkins University astrophysicist to help them pinpoint the worst ones. Tamas Budavari, who had developed a digital map of the city, used vacant housing notices to locate 4,500 abandoned end units. Then inspectors turned to aerial photos to find which ones had collapsed roofs: 350.

They hired engineers to calculate the fastest winds a roofless house could endure. From these calculations, they found 185 vacants risked blowing down. Within six months of Lemmon’s death, crews demolished them all. They stabilized 12 others, and began to take down 84 more that presented less urgent threats.

“This was an important undertaking for the city,” said Braverman, the housing commissioner, “arguably, a national best-practice.”

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Baltimore Housing Commissioner talks about vacant rowhouses in Baltimore City.

Budavari has presented his methods as far away as Cape Town, South Africa. In New Orleans, his work captured the attention of housing officials confronting blight after Hurricane Katrina.

Still, Lemmon’s family demanded answers. The rowhouse had crumbled in plain sight. Someone must be responsible, but who? Their attorney, Tierra Gregory, resolved to find out.

Studying the housing code, she decided the collapse wasn’t the city’s fault, but the homeowner’s. She picked up the trail of owners after Boykins died.

 
Tierra Gregory, the attorney in the family's lawsuit over the collapse of 900 N. Payson St. and death of Thomas "Phil" Lemmon. Jay Reed / Baltimore Sun

Gregory traced the old rowhouse through years of tax auctions to find three companies that bought the debt, foreclosed and transferred the rights.

Attorneys for these companies declined to comment.

Gregory filed wrongful death lawsuits against the companies. But she discovered the first company shut down. The second assigned its rights in the rowhouse to the third company. The third, Montego Bay Properties LLC, foreclosed on the home in February 2013, according to court records.

Still, Montego Bay never recorded a deed. So Boykins’ name remains on the books.

In this morass, who is liable?

“There has to be an answer,” Gregory said. “If that doesn’t mean money, that’s fine … at least pinning down a company gives the family the closure of knowing who is responsible.”

Lemmon’s family may never get their answer. In January, a Baltimore judge found Montego Bay failed to pay property taxes on the rowhouse for years. The judge erased the old foreclosure.

The house likely returns to the late Eugene Boykins.

Nothing remains there today. Not a trace of the old rowhouse, just a scratch of overgrown lot.

In the end, it belonged to no one at all.

 
Thomas "Phil" Lemmon was killed when a rowhouse wall at 900 N. Payson Street fell on his car while he was in it. The lot where the house stood is now covered in grass and weeds. Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

A previous version of this article misstated the significance of a savings bank founded by a Morgan State University economist. The bank was one of the first in Baltimore to serve black families.

tprudente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/tim_prudente

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