A chorus of local building historians and historic preservation officials is pleading the case for saving a besieged and battered corner of pre-Inner Harbor downtown Baltimore slated to be torn down for a new hotel.
With last week's partial demolition of a vacant office building at Light and Redwood streets, temporarily halted by an 11th-hour legal maneuver, the city's stewards of history are rallying behind the aging address in hopes of a late reprieve.
"They are like old friends. They just speak Baltimore," said Walter Schamu, an architect and former president of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects. "Older buildings are generous - they give a lot back visually, with their huge windows designed to admit light built before the fluorescent tube. And Redwood Street is a secret treasure of Baltimore architecture."
Demolition of the two buildings - one the five-story home of the Merchants and Miners steamship line (17 Light St. and built in 1904) and the other the former Sun Life Insurance Co. headquarters (109 E. Redwood and built in 1916) - was halted by a court order last week. Plans call for them to be knocked down and replaced by a $20 million, 125-room Marriott Residence Inn to be built by Bethesda developer Donald J. Urgo.
A Baltimore philanthropic agency, the Abell Foundation, has made a counter offer to buy the damaged Merchant and Miners structure and hire a developer to save both buildings. That offer has been rejected by the developer, who received permission last year to level the structures.
"My greatest disappointment is the calculated campaign to discredit Marriott, the city and ourselves through misstatements of fact and distortions," said Urgo, president of the development company that would buy the site and build the hotel under the Marriott franchise. "I am a great advocate of historic preservation, but I also recognize when many interests have to be balanced. The true interests of Baltimore City are the same as true interests of the developer."
In 1987, the collection of about 20 buildings along Redwood Street - and about 25 others around it - were placed on the National Register of Historic Places, a federal designation that allows for certain tax credits when structures are properly renovated. The national status, however, does not prevent demolition.
"The Sun Life is a beautiful building with a superior faM-gade," said M. Jay Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., which supports the developer. "For more than a year, [preservation] has been studied, but architects said it couldn't be saved without a public subsidy. ... We were not happy with that conclusion, but that was the outcome of a detailed, serious study."
Brodie also said the new hotel would help draw conventions.
Preservation advocates are not swayed. They say that once the site is cleared, there will be no replacing the character imparted by the old buildings.
"Architecturally, Redwood Street is a beautiful, three-block collection of Beaux Arts-style buildings dating to the massive reconstruction of downtown after the Great Fire of 1904," said Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland, a private group fighting the demolition.
"Beaux Arts was the last flowering of Old World detail and craftsmanship before the arrival of modern architecture in America after the Second World War. Architects used limestone, brick, granite and marble to create a dignified streetscape for the heart of the financial district," Gearhart said.
Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, issued a position paper on the proposed demolition Sept. 19, saying he "strongly supports the efforts of Preservation Maryland" to keep the buildings standing.
The buildings have attracted the attention of another Baltimorean, former governor and mayor and now state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who had a law office on Redwood Street in the 1990s.
Schaefer steps in
"The city's actions are unconscionable," said Schaefer, who recently joined the board of Preservation Maryland. "In city after city, we have seen what a positive difference reusing historic buildings has made to economic development, to tourism, and to livability. ... I hope that Mr. Marriott, who heads one of our state's most respected corporations, will intervene and resume the company's award-winning record of reusing historic buildings throughout the world for its hotels."
City redevelopment officials have said they approve of the new hotel and feel it will add to the city's stock of rentable suites, as well as bring 70 jobs to downtown.
"Redwood Street is an ensemble - it's a great district," said Charles Duff, president of the Baltimore Architectural Foundation, which favors preserving the structures. "The essence of a district is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."
A dominant player
While no street signs inform visitors of its past, Redwood Street was once the dominant player in the city's financial district. Called the Wall Street of the South by Chamber of Commerce officials, its blocks once bustled with bank runners, clanging streetcars and scurrying lawyers.
Baltimore native Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American named to the U.S. Supreme Court, practiced law on Redwood Street in the 1930s in the Phoenix Building, which stood between Charles and Light streets. The Phoenix Building, a small structure, was partially torn down and rebuilt in the 1950s.
The early days of the Whittaker Chambers vs. Alger Hiss espionage drama of the 1940s were played out in a pair of still-standing Redwood Street office buildings.
Alger Hiss, the alleged spy and State Department official who later served a jail term for perjury, met repeatedly with his lawyer at Calvert and Redwood, in the former Maryland Trust Building.
His accuser, former Time magazine writer Whittaker Chambers, divulged to his attorney on the 22nd floor of what is today the Bank of America building at Light and Redwood that Chambers had a cache of classified State Department documents.
The case, which played out through congressional hearings and a trial, was a milestone of the Cold War years and helped establish the career of then-Rep. Richard M. Nixon. The papers that Chambers discussed at Light and Redwood were part of the same group of documents known as "The Pumpkin Papers," which Chambers hid in a Carroll County pumpkin field.
In the era when Baltimore had its own stock exchange, it was at 208 E. Redwood St., in a building that also went up immediately after the 1904 fire and functioned through the 1960s.
Local developers say the street's history and architectural distinction may help save the two structures, but they cannot provide a price tag for the purchase, restoration and renovation of the two buildings to be demolished for the Marriott hotel.
"The buildings lend themselves to a couple of potential users. There is a strategy for small office suites," said Alfred W. Barry III, principal of AB Associates and former assistant Baltimore planning director. "Smart, start-up companies want to go to older, charming buildings in central downtown places. They make a conspicuous decision to avoid the suburbs."
As proof that old buildings can be renovated, Barry said that one of his clients, Hampton Inn, is applying for construction permits to rehabilitate the former USF&G; Building, at the southeast corner of Calvert and Redwood streets for a 175-room hotel.