Brick vs. blocks - the writing's on the wall

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Cinder block walls may have their place in the urban landscape, but it's not necessarily in Baltimore's historic districts.

When a rowhouse collapses or gets torn down in an older neighborhood, it's jarring to see a cinder block wall go up on the side of the adjacent property, especially if the rest of the building is faced with brick or stone.

In recent months, Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation has been working to make sure any replacement walls built by city crews in historic districts comply with the same design guidelines the commission asks private property owners to follow.

The latest example is 22 E. Preston St., a four-story townhouse where city crews are building a brick side wall to match the front of the house. It's not the same as having the late-19th century townhouse that was torn down earlier this summer, but it's better than what would have gone up had the commission not intervened.

"The first choice is that the building is still there," said Kathleen Kotarba, executive director of the preservation commission. "The second choice is that you have a brick wall and a garden - that you leave the site appealing and blending well with the historic district."

In any event, she said, "the city should set a good example and follow its own laws."

The western wall of 22 E. Preston St., previously a party wall, became exposed when the city tore down a vacant, city-owned townhouse at 20 E. Preston in June. The block, part of Baltimore's Mount Vernon Historic District, is just east of the University of Baltimore campus and visible to thousands who drive north on Charles Street each day.

The house at 20 E. Preston was taken down in an emergency demolition because portions of its roof and first two floors caved in and the building was deemed a safety hazard. The city housing department was within weeks of selling it to a potential buyer who wanted to fix it up and live there. Community leaders had urged the city to move quickly so the buyer could begin renovations before the vacant building deteriorated further, but the final paperwork had not yet been reviewed by the city's Board of Estimates when the roof collapsed.

The city typically erects a cinder block wall on the side of a building after it razes the adjacent structure. A prime example is on the 2100 block of North Calvert Street, where cinder block walls were erected on the ends of two houses after others were torn down in the middle of the block.

Baltimore has 24 historic districts containing more than 8,000 residences, and the City Council is considering legislation that would designate two more districts. CHAP, an agency funded by the housing department, is charged with reviewing and approving changes to the exteriors of buildings in city-designated historic districts.

Brick walls are more expensive to build than cinder block walls because the costs of materials and labor are higher. According to Kotarba, the preservation commission has no pre-set source of funds to cover the added expense of building brick walls. But when it became apparent that the city would have to build a new side wall at 22 E. Preston, she said, her office worked with the housing department's development office to find the funds needed to clad that side wall with brick.

Normally, "the city doesn't have money for anything other than block" walls, she said. But "we've been able to make a case that if something happens in a historic district, the housing department and CHAP should follow the guidelines" everyone else must follow.

The brick wall is being completed by Housing Authority of Baltimore Construction, the construction arm of the city's housing authority. It's expected to cost approximately $26,000, compared to between $10,000 and $15,000 for cinder block walls, she said. The additional money is coming from the city's general fund, federal block grant funds and other sources used to stabilize city buildings, according to housing officials.

This is the fourth time in recent years that the preservation commission has worked to make sure new side walls in a city historic district were clad with brick rather than block.

Other examples include the side wall of a house in the 100 block of South Gilmor Street in Union Square, the side wall of a house in the 400 block of St. Mary Street in Seton Hill, and a house on Madison Street in the Eutaw-Madison historic district. In each case, cinder block would have been inappropriate.

Unlike some buildings in historic districts, the Preston Street house was "on everybody's radar screen," Kotarba said, because the city had sought proposals for its rehabilitation and received three offers. Its collapse was "extremely upsetting to the neighborhood, especially since we were so close to awarding it" to a rehabber, she said.

Kotarba said the prospective buyer of 20 E. Preston has indicated he still may want to acquire the property and build a house from scratch. If he moves ahead with that plan, it would be one of the first townhouses to rise in the Mount Vernon historic district in more than a decade.

Because the original building is gone and the nature of the development has changed, the city most likely would have to re-offer the parcel in a new round of bidding, said Robert Pipik, director of asset management for the housing department.

Meanwhile, the preservation commission is working to establish a permanent fund to guarantee that appropriate materials are used when city crews stabilize or replace a side wall in a historic district. Kotarba said the housing department's leaders have been "very supportive" of the idea, but that doesn't mean she would actually want to see the fund depleted.

"Nothing would please me more," she said, "than to have a budget for this and then not have to use it."

Mansion restoration

At a meeting last week, CHAP approved plans to restore the former Graham Mansion at 704 Cathedral St. in Mount Vernon as an annex to Baltimore's School for the Arts next door.

As part of its review, the commission approved plans to demolish a free-standing garage and residential wing that were not part of the original mansion and construct a new three-story addition linking the school with the renovated mansion. Cho Benn Holback + Associates is the project architect.

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