President Street Station in Baltimore is the oldest surviving big city railroad terminal in the United States. The property was a stop on the Underground Railroad used by slaves fleeing from the South. The building played a key role in the first fatalities of the Civil War. It's also sitting vacant in an area of intense commercial development on Baltimore's waterfront.
So when members of Baltimore's preservation commission learned that Mayor Sheila Dixon plans to seek proposals from groups interested in redeveloping the city-owned property at 601 President St., they decided to take steps to protect the former train station from disappearing altogether.
Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation will hold a hearing this winter to decide whether to add the building to the city's landmark list to help protect it from demolition or insensitive renovation.
"President Street Station is one of the most important buildings in the city," said Tyler Gearhart, the commission's chairman. "Most people feel strongly that it should remain publicly owned and publicly accessible."
The mayor's office disclosed in late December that it had asked the Baltimore Development Corp. to request proposals from groups interested in buying or leasing the vacant station, home to the Baltimore Civil War Museum from 1997 to 2007. The Maryland Historical Society closed the museum in November, saying it was losing money.
Although the building dates to the early 1850s, it is not protected by local landmark status. Once a building is added to the city's landmark list, an owner cannot change the exterior without permission from the preservation panel. It's a way of giving panel members a say in what happens to it, and a way of notifying future owners or tenants that they must comply with local preservation guidelines.
The station was built as the southern passenger terminal for the old Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore (PW&B;) rail line, later part of the Pennsylvania Railroad. On April 19, 1861, 700 members of the 6th Massachusetts Regiment arrived there on their way to Washington and were attacked by an angry mob, resulting in the first fatalities of the Civil War.
Now part of Harbor East, a new neighborhood on Baltimore's waterfront, the building was converted to a museum in the 1990s at a cost of $1.3 million. The architect was Kieran, Timberlake & Harris of Philadelphia. Its successor, KieranTimberlake, was named this year's Architecture Firm of the Year by the American Institute of Architects.
During their January meeting, panel members said they believe any request for proposals should underscore the station's historical significance. They also said they'd like an offering to indicate that the city would prefer that the building remain accessible to the public and continue to impart information about Civil War-era history, even if it has to be combined with some commercial activity.
Gearhart said the landmark designation hearing for President Street Station will be held Feb. 12 or March 11. In the meantime, commission members suggested several possible uses for the building, such as a community center or the setting for a model train garden, possibly with a full-scale train car parked outside.
Panel member Michael Murphy suggested that the building be retained by the city and used for Harbor East residents' community meetings and other activities.
"More and more people are living there," he said. "Can't the city just own that building and let the citizens use it?"
One organization with a keen interest in President Street Station is the B&O; Railroad Museum at 901 W. Pratt St.
Museum executive director Courtney Wilson said he has been talking with city representatives about ways to reuse the station and that the museum might respond to the city's request for proposals. But he said the museum most likely would need assistance if it were to become involved.
Wilson said the city's decision to seek development proposals could be good if it elicits ideas that ultimately help give the station new life as a public attraction. He said the emphasis should be on preserving the history represented by the station, not just the structure that's there now.
For example, he said, a train garden inside the building could depict the rail yard and station as they were in 1861 and the events that unfolded, making it valuable as an educational resource. The station might also be marketed in conjunction with nearby hotels, he said, as an unconventional setting for cocktail parties and other gatherings for conventioneers.
Above all, "we ought to move to preserve the stories told there," Wilson said. "The preservation of the building will follow."