Lurking beneath the surface of the controversy over the future of the Morris Mechanic Theatre are two issues which, if not resolved, can only be described as tragedies for the future of historic preservation in Baltimore.
The first is the undermining of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP). Five years ago, CHAP recommended that the Mechanic be designated a landmark. The recommendation languished because of the economic downturn, but on May 17, in response to an application to demolish the Mechanic, CHAP wrote Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asking that an ordinance be introduced in the City Council to landmark the building. At a hearing on August 14, CHAP announced that the mayor had refused CHAP's request.
The CHAP commissioners are an eminent group. Appointed by the mayor for fixed terms, the members range from architects and preservationists to civic leaders like Robert C. Embry Jr. of the Abell Foundation and James C. "Buzz" Cusack, owner of the Charles and Senator movie theaters, to law professor and political operative par excellence Larry S. Gibson. They are supported by a dedicated staff who know everything there is to know about historic and architectural significance.
In the case of the Mechanic recommendation, it was backed by architects especially, including the Baltimore Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, but also including luminaries of the architectural profession from around the country, including Kevin Roche, who recounted how he made a pilgrimage to Baltimore to see the building first hand.
The mayor's refusal to submit an ordinance is undemocratic. It denies the citizens of Baltimore the opportunity to attend a City Council hearing and tell their representatives why the Mechanic should be preserved. Historic preservation is a big deal in Baltimore. In the face of a lot of bad news for the city generally, it is the historic neighborhoods that are reviving — Bolton Hill, Mount Vernon, Federal Hill, Fells Point and Canton, among others. Many see the future of Baltimore as home to young professionals who cherish the historic character of the city.
The mayor's action undermines CHAP, suggesting that its members really don't need to debate the merits of issues but can simply check with City Hall and ascertain the mayor's wishes. The City Code says that the CHAP recommendation for landmark status "shall" be introduced in the City Council for public hearings after it has gone through reviews; unfortunately, the Planning Commission disapproved the recommendation.
The City Code does not state that CHAP's recommendation has to be approved by the mayor and City Council. But in my opinion, it does mean that there has to be a hearing (despite the Planning Commission's disapproval). By refusing to introduce the recommendation, the mayor is foreclosing the debate before it even has occurred. The mayor converts "shall" to "may," depending on her wishes.
The second tragedy in all of this is that it removes the centerpiece of Baltimore's next great historic district: Charles Center, which today is on the cusp of meeting the 50-year standard for historic districts. This is not widely known, but many downtown office towers — like the Art Deco skyscraper at 10 Light St. — are being considered for conversion to housing. In 20 years or so, Charles Center will be a historic district, home to thousands of new Baltimore residents, and featuring notable structures like One Charles Center designed by Mies van der Rohe, and no fewer than three buildings by Baltimore's greatest 20th century architects, Peterson and Brickbauer. Picture in your mind's eye a restored and shined-up Mechanic, sitting like a crouched bulldog looking out over its neighbors, proclaiming then, as it does now, that the world is not composed solely of sleek office towers.
And if the city allows the Mechanic to be torn down, imagine, too, the reaction years from now: "How could this have happened, that the architectural centerpiece of Charles Center was destroyed? How could this have happened?"