Fells Point residents gain time for two early buildings Owner to 'stabilize' 1700s-era structures


After months of negotiations with a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. subsidiary, Fells Point residents have gained additional time to save the London Coffee House and the George Wells House -- two of the neighborhood's oldest and most significant buildings.

The KMS Group, the BG&E; subsidiary that owns the vacant structures at the northwest corner of Bond and Thames streets, has agreed to "stabilize" both of them. The work would prevent further deterioration of their outer shells, which have large holes that leave them open to the elements.

The stabilization work, in turn, will give residents a chance to come up with a plan to restore them fully, possibly as public attractions.

"This is the only remaining coffeehouse in the city," said Jack Trautwein, a Fells Point resident and member of the group working to save the buildings.

"It was the Jimmy's of its time," Mr. Trautwein said, referring to the Fells Point restaurant frequented by U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and others. "It was the place where all the politicos met and the decisions were made. That's the way coffeehouses were back then."

The intersection of Thames and Bond streets was "the original center of Fells Point," said resident Arnold Capute. "During the Revolution everything was right here, and the London Coffee House was in the center of it. Now it's all that's left."

"Construction experts have told us the buildings probably couldn't last another winter," said Carolyn Donkervoet, executive director of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill & Fell's Point. "That's why we've been pressing so hard to save them. . . . It's a wonderful thing."

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the London Coffee House was built from 1770 to 1772 and served as a meeting place for city leaders during the Revolutionary War period. Now covered in Formstone and marked by a red wreath hanging from the second floor, it operated as a coffeehouse until the last quarter of the 18th century.

The George Wells House, next to the coffee shop, was constructed around 1787 as the home for a shipbuilder whose waterfront operation was just across Thames Street. Mr. Wells was one of the state's foremost shipbuilders during the Revolution.

Fells Point residents say the commitment to repair the two buildings is the result of a new "dialogue" between them and KMS, which controls more than a dozen acres along the Fells Point waterfront west of Broadway, including the Brown's Wharf shopping and office complex.

The talks began in the spring, when KMS came to the community with plans to tear down the six-story Terminal Warehouse at 1601 Thames St. KMS representatives say the warehouse is not feasible to recycle and they believe the property would be more attractive to prospective tenants if it were cleared and prepared for new construction, with a park created as an interim use.

Community representatives, in turn, responded with a detailed list of actions they wanted KMS to take whether the warehouse is razed or not, starting with the preservation of four historic buildings that KMS owns in Fells Point.

Besides the Wells House and coffeehouse, residents are concerned about the structures known as Chase's Wharf and Miller's Wharf, both on the waterfront.

Kent Johnson, assistant vice president of KMS, said the company still wants to tear down the Terminal Warehouse and is working to obtain a demolition permit. But he said it is willing to meet with community residents to address concerns they have about any of KMS' Fells Point properties because it is in the best interests of both parties.

"We think we have a lot of common ground, and we're willing to work with them on common goals," he said. "It's a very positive relationship."

Mr. Johnson said KMS and Fells Point representatives recently took contractors through the buildings and will meet again soon to determine the scope of work and select a contractor. Most likely, he said, the work will include constructing temporary roofs, removing debris from the interiors, and repairing exterior walls to keep out wind and rain -- a process not unlike the city's stabilization of the historic President Street train station near the Inner Harbor.

Mr. Trautwein and Fells Point resident Bud Billings said their group is creating a non-profit organization called Historic Fell's Point Inc. to redevelop the properties. Once that group is set up and has a non-profit status, they said, it will be able to raise money to help fund the restoration work. For now, they said, donations to help preserve the buildings may be sent to the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill & Fell's Point at 812 S. Ann St.

The residents say the coffeehouse could be restored for use as a coffeehouse or possibly a teahouse similar to the one McCormick & Co. had at 414 Light St. until its spice factory was razed several years ago. The Wells House, they say, could be a museum of Fells Point history or a visitors' orientation center.

Bond Street resident Thomas Durel said the group focused on the smaller buildings first because they are built at such a scale that people from the community could invest "sweat equity" to restore them.

The fate of the Terminal Warehouse, meanwhile, remains undetermined. Some residents, such as Charles Norton, say they would like to see KMS save both the warehouse and the smaller buildings. Ben Carlson said he believes the warehouse, with its thick walls and small windows, would make an ideal prison.

But others say that if the choice comes down to one or the other, they would rather see the smaller structures saved, because their restoration could be a catalyst for other redevelopment activity nearby.

Ms. Donkervoet said she believes the developers' willingness to stabilize the smaller buildings will go a long way toward improving their standing with Fells Point residents.

"Until they showed some intent to save the historic buildings, the community did not feel so gracious toward them," she said. "This is changing that."

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