Historical society plan draws rebukes


In an effort to showcase 300 years of state history, the Maryland Historical Society wants to tear down two buildings that are part of Baltimore's Mount Vernon Historic District.

The historical society also is preparing to turn its back on Howard Street by placing its main entrance on Park Avenue, even though the Schmoke administration has been encouraging cultural organizations to help transform the corridor to an "Avenue of the Arts."

Preliminary plans for a $10 million expansion of the society's complex at 201 W. Monument St. have drawn rebukes from preservationists and architects concerned about the fate of Howard Street.

"It's absolutely the wrong thing for an organization with 'history' in its name to take down buildings," said William Pencek, president of Baltimore Heritage, a local preservation advocacy group, and chief of the Office of Preservation Services at the Maryland Historical Trust.

The buildings in question, which the society owns, are 1920s-era commercial structures that front on the 600 block of N. Howard Street. The society wants to raze them to make way for a 31-space parking lot.

That would set a bad precedent for owners of all buildings in historic districts, said Baltimore architect and preservationist David Gleason. "Shouldn't the historical society, above all, be sensitive to the historical context of Howard Street?" he asked. "It's missing a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the area's past."

Society representatives said that the buildings would not be worth renovating and that their funds would be better spent on more important aspects of the project.

Preliminary plans for the expansion were presented last week to Baltimore's Architectural Review Board.

As designed by Grieves Worrall Wright and O'Hatnick of Baltimore, the plans call for the former Greyhound bus garage at the northwest corner of Centre Street and Park Avenue to be converted to a "history center" that would feature exhibits on 300 years of Maryland history. The city donated the garage to the society last fall as part of the mayor's Avenue of the Arts strategy.

The converted bus garage would then be linked to the society's current buildings on Monument Street by an education center and entrance courtyard off the 600 block of Park Ave.

The courtyard, which would become the new main entrance for the complex, would displace a parking lot between the bus garage and the society's Monument Street buildings. The proposed parking lot would compensate for those lost spaces.

The entire project, including expansion of a 1916 library by Laurence Hall Fowler and other renovations, would be completed in phases as funds become available. As part of its fund-raising effort, the society is seeking another $5 million for an endowment.

Members of the architectural review panel praised the renovation plans, for the most part, but expressed reservations about the proposed demolition.

"Maybe I have a mistaken impression of what a historical society is, but it seems to me that one group that should understand the character of a city is a historical society," said panelist George Notter. "I totally object to the buildings coming down."

Panel member Phoebe Stanton told architect James Grieves, the principal in charge of the project, that Howard Street has already been "devastated" by demolition and neglect. "It's horrible, what's happened to Howard Street," she said. "I would hope to see buildings kept. I don't know if that's possible, but I would hope that you would treat Howard Street in some assertive way."

To reinvigorate Howard Street, at one time the city's principal retail corridor, the Schmoke administration has been coaxing arts groups to move to or expand along the mile-long stretch from Lexington Mall to Preston Street.

The historical society is the second arts organization to suggest demolition on Howard Street. The other is the Eubie Blake National Museum and Cultural Center, which wants to raze two buildings in the 500 block to construct a new headquarters. That project is undergoing review by the Maryland Historical Trust, which has asked the Blake Center to justify the need for demolition.

In presenting his plan for the historical society expansion, Mr. Grieves told panel members that he did not believe the society's Howard Street buildings were worth saving because they are not connected to the rest of the complex and would be costly to renovate.

He added that removing the buildings actually could give the historical society a stronger presence on Howard Street because the rest of the complex would be more visible once the brick structures disappeared.

Mr. Grieves explained that his team recommended shifting the main entrance to Park Avenue because it provides the best access for the new history center as well as the older parts of the complex.

The idea, he said, is to use Centre Street as a "Museum Row" that would connect the expanded historical society and the Walters Art Gallery, whose main entrance fronts on Centre Street two blocks to the east. The Walters plans to build a parking garage at Centre and Cathedral streets that could serve both institutions, he added.

Mr. Grieves said he understood the panelists' concerns about preservation of the "street edge" along Howard Street. But he said the 600 block of Howard St. has been adversely affected by a raised median strip for the light rail line. "It's not a comfortable space."

Mr. Gleason said he would like to see the society's architects take the same creative approach they are using with the bus garage and apply it to the Howard Street buildings. He said he believes the society could use them to house a bookstore and community outreach programs.

"Why couldn't they open up the storefronts and sell history, Maryland history? As you ride the light rail, you would see something positive, rather than derelict buildings or a parking lot. It could be a wonderful billboard for the historical society."

Richard Gorelick, public relations director for the society, said the plan is still evolving and will come back to the board for more reviews before construction begins. "There's still a lot of work to be done."

Any demolition would have to be approved by Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, since the property is in a city historic district. Commissioners have not reviewed the plans, said preservation planner Eric Holcomb.

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