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Rochambeau has to go, mayor says


Standing for a century at a busy city intersection wasn't enough. Praise from architects and historians wasn't enough. Not even seemingly indisputable city law proved enough, in the end, to save the Rochambeau.

Mayor Martin O'Malley announced yesterday that the Archdiocese of Baltimore will be allowed to demolish the Rochambeau, a 100-year-old apartment building that shares a Mount Vernon block with the church's prized Basilica of the Assumption.

The decision ends a years-long standoff between one of Baltimore's most powerful religious organizations and virtually all of the city's preservation interests.

To do anything other than allow the archdiocese to raze the Rochambeau to build a prayer garden would inhibit the church's religious freedom, the mayor decided, delighting the church but enraging historians.

"It was one of the toughest decisions I've had to make," O'Malley said. "I came to the conclusion that the church prevails on the First Amendment."

But local and national preservationists say this has nothing to do with religious freedom.

"This is a real estate decision," said Rob Nieweg, regional director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "It's shocking to say this is being based on religious freedom. It cheapens the constitutional right."

The archdiocese has big plans for the block that surrounds the basilica. First the Rochambeau will come down and the church will turn the site into a prayer garden. Eventually, the church will raze the whole block to build a basilica pilgrimage headquarters.

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 200-year-old structure that the last pope called a "worldwide symbol of religious freedom."

Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the U.S. Capitol's architect, the basilica will reopen in November after a $32 million restoration.

The symbolism is rich, archdiocese attorney David Kinkopf said yesterday, that a symbol of religious freedom would win this fight based on that very reason.

The Rochambeau has stood for 100 years next to the Basilica - on very shaky ground since the archdiocese bought it in 2002.

Preservationists say the Renaissance Revival apartment building, named for a French commander who camped on the site during the Revolutionary War, contributes heavily to the district's historic character.

They say the Rochambeau's architect, Edward Hughes Glidden, was one of Baltimore's most noted builders of his day.

Baltimore Heritage appealed to the Baltimore Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation just weeks ago to have the Rochambeau named an official city landmark.

The mayor's decision came almost a year after the archdiocese applied for a permit to demolish the Rochambeau, which is now vacant. The one-year wait was required under Baltimore's urban renewal law, which governs the central business district, rules adopted specifically to protect the city's grand old structures.

During the year, preservationists pelted City Hall with letters to save the Rochambeau just as other organizations, primarily downtown business boosters, sided with the archdiocese, saying the run-down apartment building couldn't contribute to the city the way a refurbished basilica complex would.

"We greatly appreciate the overwhelming support we have received from those in the community who recognize that the building has been the source of problems for decades and that now the corner will contribute in a positive way," Cardinal William H. Keeler said yesterday in a statement.

Baltimore architect Walter Schamu, who's known for historic restorations and campaigned to save the Rochambeau, said tearing it down is "a missed opportunity."

"I think the building should be converted into something more useful than a prayer garden - whatever a prayer garden is," he said. "I think we're losing too much of old Baltimore, and this building is a prime example."

But yesterday the Rochambeau's defenders were as upset with the city's rationale for allowing it to be torn down as with the impending demolition.

"It's really a stretch to say that not being able to pray in a garden is a substantial burden on their religious freedom," said John Murphy, an attorney and outspoken preservationist. "It's totally ludicrous. There's nothing in the Roman Catholic liturgy that requires you to pray in a garden."

But City Solicitor Ralph Tyler said the church's case for the demolition was not only very real, but very intimidating.

"It was a virtual certainty," he said, "that were we to deny the permit, it would be challenged by the church and we would lose."

In addition to federal religious land use law, there is precedent in Maryland - a 1996 case in which a church was allowed to tear down a monastery in a historic district for a parking lot and church expansion.

Julian L. Lapides, who leads Baltimore Heritage's board of directors, said O'Malley "capitulated" to the Catholic Church. He calls the religious freedom argument the reason "they're hiding behind ... as an excuse for allowing a great building to go down."

"I like Martin very much, but I am very disappointed with his record on historic preservation. And I'm disappointed with the city for not having the guts to stand up and protect a building that's really a landmark," Lapides said. "It's just wrong to let a powerful institution deface the city of Baltimore."

O'Malley said he has tried, to no avail, to convince the archdiocese to change its mind on the demolition. If he could do it, he said, he's willing to ask the City Council to approve subsidies for the church to renovate the building instead.

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