The rush to landmark a group of 1820s rowhomes to save them from demolition falls under the heading of "better late than never." But the last-minute city effort underscores the need for Baltimore preservationists to take the initiative in protecting the city's architectural heritage. The list of significant buildings that lack local landmark status may surprise you: the Hippodrome Theater, Camden Station and the Woman's Industrial Exchange, to name a few. Their prominence protects them, but there are other lesser-known buildings whose futures may be far less certain.
Preservationists admit they too often find themselves on the defense, rather than the offense. Their attempts in 2001 to protect the 1820s houses on St. Paul Place (and about 39 other buildings in the central business district) with a "notable" designation was undermined recently by a legislative sleight of hand that stripped the protection from the rowhouses. Mercy Medical Center, which owns the buildings, was able to move swiftly to secure a demolition permit. A legal battle will likely settle their fate.
So preservationists should turn their attention to other buildings that deserve landmark status and push the city's Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation, the agency responsible for these designations, to begin appropriate proceedings.
The last time CHAP took the initiative in designating a swath of historic buildings was 20 years ago, when its staff compiled an inventory of more than 60 landmark candidates. Opposition from property owners and the City Council, which must approve landmark designations, slowed CHAP's work. Over the past two decades, the number of landmark designations has decreased. In the 1990s, CHAP only landmarked buildings whose owners supported the designation, a total of 13. That compares with 54 designated in the 1970s and 41 in the 1980s.
For the 126 city landmarks, the designation provides for a yearlong review period on demolition. Location in an urban renewal district or one of the city's 32 local historic districts offers similar protection from capricious destruction or inappropriate renovation and tax advantages for owners.
The city also has 45,000 properties on the National Register of Historic Landmarks, which affords other safeguards.
The city's new master plan promotes Baltimore's historic and architectural legacy. That should give CHAP any cover it needs to aggressively pursue landmark status for significant buildings that remain unprotected. A consultant is now reviewing CHAP's policies for possible enhancements. Here's one change that should be pushed: A landmark application that has been set for public hearing should take precedence over a demolition permit request.
If that rule had been in place, the fate of the endangered 1820s rowhouses would have been put off for a year.