Advocate tries to revive fight to stop Mercy

Though Baltimore Heritage gave up, a former attorney is trying to revive the organization's fight to stop Mercy Medical Center from razing a row of historic downtown houses.

In an unorthodox legal move, Leonard J. Kerpelman, best known for his role in the 1963 Supreme Court case that removed prayer from public schools, asked City Hall to let him pick up the preservation group's abandoned challenge.


"Baltimore Heritage, they let people down," Kerpelman said. "I just couldn't let this one go."

In a brief, colorful and grammatically inventive petition faxed yesterday to Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano, Kerpelman outlined his desire to become "substitute objector" in the matter. He also denounced "avaricious" developers, former city leaders and, most of all, Baltimore Heritage for giving up its lawsuit to stop Mercy from tearing down the 1820s-era townhouses for a $292 million expansion.


It "is to the detriment of all Baltimore residents, both economic, emotional and also rational," Kerpelman wrote. "What oh what will be next[?] Will it be City Hall ... Fort McHenry ... the Peale Museum ...?"

City Solicitor George Nilson said Kerpelman's legal maneuver has almost no chance of it succeeding.

"It's inconceivable to me that it could work," he said. "Unless there's some very, very unusual case law, once an appeal is dismissed, there's no authority for someone to be a substitute party."

This week, Baltimore Heritage officials revoked their lawsuit challenging Mercy's plan to demolish the houses along the 300 block of St. Paul Place, saying they didn't want to be "obstructionists." The preservationists said the litigation was becoming too expensive, and they believed it would do little more than delay the destruction of the buildings.

Some preservationists, however, including Kerpelman, thought the organization had a good case and should have stuck with it -- for symbolic reasons if nothing else.

"They're the embodiment of history, and also they're cute," he said of the houses, some of the oldest downtown. "You got all this modern stuff that they throw up all the time. Then you look at something like this and you think, 'Gee, how gracious.'"

Mercy officials, who thought they were free to begin clearing the property for a new inpatient tower, were surprised yesterday to hear about Kerpelman's move.

"I've got to check it out with our attorneys," said Gary N. Michael, Mercy's senior vice president of marketing. "Obviously, it would concern us. We'll have to look into it and see if it has any merit from a legal perspective."


Mercy and the preservation community faced off last fall when City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., at Mercy's request, pushed an amendment to an otherwise innocuous bill that removed the houses from a list of "notable" properties -- a designation that required a one-year waiting period before demolition.

There was no public notice about the amendment, and preservation advocates did not learn of it until after the mayor signed it into law.

Baltimore Heritage's appeal focused on what would be an open-government violation -- that city officials failed to change the title of the bill after Mitchell amended it. City law requires a bill's title to reflect the legislation's substance.

Kerpelman, 63, says he has long been concerned about preservation issues and has fought successfully to protect green space from development near his Mount Washington home.

Despite his success in the school prayer case, he eventually lost his right to practice law in Maryland for reasons including disruptive and disrespectful conduct.

Baltimore Heritage President Julian L. Lapides, whom Kerpelman called a "Benedict Arnold" yesterday for "turning his back" on the houses, complimented the former attorney's pluck even while questioning his wisdom.


"We've already determined ... that it would not be a winning act, but I can't stop anyone from doing anything, especially not Leonard Kerpelman, one of the city's great characters," Lapides said.

"We'll see what courts have to say. I've tilted at many windmills in my career, and this many be a larger tilt than most," he said.

Lapides also brushed off the "Benedict Arnold" tag.

"Maybe it's a badge of honor," he said, adding, "Leonard is known for his great desire for publicity. But sometimes he's on the side of the angels."

Attorney John C. Murphy, a Baltimore Heritage board member who disagrees with the group's decision to quit the case, was glad to hear of Kerpelman's efforts to keep it alive.

"I certainly think that it's worthy of being pursued," he said. "I wish him the best."


By late yesterday, neither Nilson nor Graziano had issued a formal decision on the petition.

If it's rejected, Kerpelman promises he will take it to court.