Hoping to make peace with Baltimore's preservationists, Mercy Medical Center has offered to spend $400,000 to spare one of a row of historic downtown houses and rebuild it in a city museum.
Those fighting the downtown hospital's attempt to demolish the 1820s-era houses on St. Paul Place for a $292 million expansion call Mercy's gesture unacceptable and vow that they will pursue their goal of getting the hospital's demolition permit revoked.
Top Mercy officials, searching for a compromise to ward off what could be a drawn-out battle with preservationists, said yesterday that they are willing to save the facade of one of the houses and would dedicate space in their new inpatient tower to an exhibit on the site's rich African-American history.
"We want all of Baltimore to know that Mercy's trying," said Samuel E. Moskowitz, Mercy's executive vice president for corporate strategy and development. "We were surprised we were just flat-out rejected."
Officials with Baltimore Heritage, the preservation group challenging Mercy's plan, say the only historically appropriate option is keeping the houses intact where they are and building the hospital addition around them.
"We really feel very strongly that the only real preservation solution is saving the buildings on site," said Baltimore Heritage President Julian L. Lapides. "We think they should stay where they are and that we have a good legal argument to do that."
Mercy has not found a museum to take the house.
Though the hospital's expansion plans were announced in 2005, the clash over the historic rowhouses, some of the oldest structures downtown, flared last fall.
City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. sponsored an amendment to a bill that stripped the houses of historic protections. The amendment, added quietly at Mercy's request, eliminated a required one-year demolition deliberation process that would have hampered Mercy's construction schedule.
Last month, Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation unanimously voted to restore some protections to the homes, effectively defying city officials who days earlier had granted Mercy its demolition permit.
To allow Mercy to study the feasibility of moving the seven homes, a hearing on Baltimore Heritage's appeal of the demolition permit has been postponed from today to Jan. 30.
"We really have a timetable. We have to move swiftly," Moskowitz said yesterday. "We're willing to take some time to do this, but we don't see any value in taking the time if the response we got so far is what's ahead of us."
City Councilman James B. Kraft, a member of the city's preservation board, said Mercy's offer falls short.
"We're looking at a $300 million project, and they're saying we'll spend $400,000 to move one house and put a little exhibit up? I can understand why Baltimore Heritage would not be thrilled by that," Kraft said.
Kraft said Mercy should try harder to spare the whole row of houses.
"I think if they really wanted to be creative, instead of spending $400,000 to move one house, spend the money on $400,000 worth of architects to find another way to redo the front of that building," he said.
Baltimore Heritage is basing its legal case against the demolition permit on an alleged open-government violation.
The preservation group says Mitchell's amendment is invalid because city officials did not change the title of the bill after the councilman's substantive change. City law requires bill titles to reflect the essence of the legislation.
Preservationists want the amendment voided and the one-year waiting period on demolition reinstated. To raze the houses, Mercy would then also have to prove that it was economically infeasible to keep them.
"We want the process back," Baltimore Heritage Executive Director Johns Hopkins said, "so that when a building owner says it can be done, lets make sure it is true. ... We have a shot at that and that's what we're going for."
David Rocah, president of the Mount Royal Improvement Association, a community group that protested the city's eliminating the homes' historic protections, said yesterday that striking down Mitchell's amendment would be better for Baltimore than saving one home in a museum.
"I think with the exception of Mercy Hospital and perhaps some people in city government, most people in Baltimore who care about historic architecture and care about the historic fabric of our city think that's what should have happened," he said. "It's only because of a series of unfortunate and sneaky events that we're in some other situation."
Lapides said he doesn't think Mercy tried to find an architectural plan for the new building that preserved the rowhouses. Moskowitz and hospital board member Walter Sondheim, however, say Mercy considered demolition a last resort.
Moskowitz said Mercy's board asked three architectural firms to incorporate the homes into the new tower's design. "Each firm said it's impractical and impossible," he said.
Mercy officials said they would use the hearing delay to get assessments from engineers on the logistics of moving one of the facades and how much that would cost. The red-brick buildings, which had been used as Mercy offices for years, are vacant.
"The numbers are big," Moskowitz said, adding that the hospital has been told it would cost more than $2.5 million to move and reconstruct all seven of the homes. "We simply do not have that money."
Gary N. Michael, the hospital's senior vice president of marketing, said that if one of the homes could be preserved in a museum and the hospital could display an educational exhibit on the site's history, it could mean a lot.
The first school in the city to grant higher education degrees to blacks used to be in one of the homes. And in the early 1900s, whites and blacks - including former slaves - lived side by side in the strip of homes even though city law then kept blocks racially exclusive.
"It's a nice way to pay homage to the entire history of the location Mercy occupies," Michael said.
Moskowitz expressed frustration yesterday that preservationists have rejected Mercy's offer.
"Thousands of people would be able to learn about the history and about what's being talked about," he said. "We think it's in the best interest of all parties to try to find a compromise."