Church, preservationists in historic battle


The Archdiocese of Baltimore is spending millions to restore its domed icon, the famed Basilica of the Assumption, and now Catholic Church officials want to make the most of those efforts - even if it means clearing the area around the landmark to best show it off.

The church proposes razing a downtown apartment building it owns on the basilica's block, replacing it with a prayer garden. The archdiocese believes it has a religious right to the demolition, a right to recast the area to fulfill the church's vision.

But preservationists say tearing down the nearly 100-year- old Rochambeau would leave a gaping hole in one of Baltimore's most historic corridors.

The dilemma now rests in the hands of city housing officials, who in deliberating the church's demolition request will be weighing the demands of one of Baltimore's most powerful religious institutions against recommendations of local and national preservationists.

By applying for a demolition permit this week, the archdiocese put to rest years of speculation about its plans for the apartment building, which is on a block with the basilica, a church jewel undergoing a $32 million restoration.

"The Basilica has and must continue to be a light on the hill for generations," the archdiocese wrote in its demolition application, explaining how ultimately the church plans to raze the entire block surrounding the basilica - between Cathedral and Charles streets - to make way for a visitor center or a pilgrimage headquarters.

"It's time for the property to be used directly in furtherance of the Church's religious mission."

Archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine said yesterday that replacing the Rochambeau with a prayer garden honoring the late Pope John Paul II would be the first step in that effort.

The church bought the seven-story apartment building at 1 W. Franklin St. in 2002 for $3.5 million.

At the time of the purchase and repeatedly since, archdiocese officials assured preservationists that the building was in no immediate danger.

"It's crystal clear that from day one they've had plans for the entire site," says Baltimore Heritage Director Johns Hopkins. "I hate to call the archdiocese sneaky, but it is pretty sneaky."

Historic character

The Rochambeau, a Renaissance Revival structure named for a French commander who camped on the site during the Revolutionary War, contributes heavily to the district's historic character, Hopkins said.

"Other cities would kill to have a historic corridor like Charles Street. When you start demolishing structures on your key historic street, that's just terrible," Hopkins said.

"If anybody looked at this objectively, without knowing who the owner is," he continued, "people would just say, 'No, demolition doesn't make sense at all.'"

State and national historic organizations are joining the Baltimore group in protesting the potential demolition.

A regional director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation called the Rochambeau "an anchor" of an important intersection in the Cathedral Hill National Register Historic District.

"A pocket park is not an adequate replacement," said Rob Nieweg, adding that, in the trust's view, the demolition would be "a major setback" to the basilica's restoration.

"It should be part of the revival of the neighborhood," he said, "not responsible for the demolition of parts of the neighborhood."

Maryland Historical Trust Director Rodney Little said that because of the potential demolition, his organization is considering withholding millions of dollars in historic tax credits from the archdiocese for the basilica project.

"We are looking into that question," Little said. "It's part of the historic fabric and when you start demolishing the fabric, pretty soon you don't have a historic district anymore."

First cathedral

While the Rochambeau might have historic merit, the basilica - formally known as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary - is the first Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States, a structure that the last pope called a "worldwide symbol of religious freedom."

Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect responsible for the U.S. Capitol, the basilica is ready to celebrate its 200th anniversary.

Sharing the block with the cathedral and the Rochambeau are an archdiocese-owned parking garage and buildings containing programs run by Associated Catholic Charities.

The Rochambeau appears to be the only historic building that stands in the way of the church's long-range plans for a block dedicated to highlighting the cathedral.

Because the block is part of a city urban renewal area, to tear down the building, the church must prove, among other things, that the building is not economically feasible.

No public hearing

There is no public hearing in the demolition permit process - city housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano has the final say-so. It's not clear when he will make a decision.

Along with its demolition application, the archdiocese submitted a study showing that it would lose money running the building as apartments - either with minor renovations or a full-scale luxury rehab. The 54 units have been vacant since November.

However, a local developer who's renovated historic downtown buildings into pricey rental units and has examined the Rochambeau property for the archdiocese said it would be an ideal renovation opportunity.

Rehab called 'feasible'

"I did an analysis for them, I don't know what they did with it," said David Hillman. "It's definitely feasible."

But Caine said the archdiocese estimates it would take $5.4 million to renovate the building, too much on top of the millions the church spent to buy it. Just to get it off the code violation books, Caine said, would take $650,000 in exterior paint, new windows and other fixes.

Selling it to another developer, he added, is not an option.

"The archdiocese isn't in the business of buying property in order to give it to developers to operate," he said.

While economics compel the demolition, the church says it has a right to do so anyway in its pursuit of religious freedom.

The archdiocese points to a 1996 Allegany County case in which an expanding church in a Cumberland historic district sought to tear down a monastery. The city denied the demolition, the church sued and won.

'A national symbol'

"It's not just irony that [the basilica] is considered a national symbol of religious freedom to Catholics," Caine said. "We consider this space to be part of our right to further our religious mission."

Caine said that the archdiocese simply sees no reason to maintain the Rochambeau - not even a historic one.

"We don't see the value," he said. "It's easy to see value in a building that's on someone else's economic back."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad