Baltimore is set to designate President Street Station, an 1850s train depot with chapters in the histories of both the Underground Railroad and the Civil War, as a city landmark. But the city's plan to also seek a long-term tenant to revitalize the vacant building has a group of history buffs fearful that the building's past will get swallowed up in any future use.
This summer, the Planning Department expects to issue a request for proposals on how to reuse what is believed to be the oldest surviving urban train station in the country. The small, red-brick structure at 601 President St. stands out among the gleaming and still-growing Inner Harbor East hotel and retail district.
"We want to be able to more effectively share this treasure with the public, and we want the building itself to be cared for," said Kathleen Kotarba, director of Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, which will review the proposals. "We feel that by proceeding with the RFP, we're going to be so much more effective in both areas."
But the Friends of President Street Station, a group that helped save the building decades ago, wants the city to hold off on finding a new tenant. It says the only appropriate use of the building is as a museum, and it's frantically trying to attract the interest of National Park Service.
The storied site was part of the Underground Railroad, a passage to freedom for slaves from the South. Then, in April 1861, Massachusetts troops arriving at the station were greeted by angry Southern sympathizers - the several soldiers and residents killed marked the first bloodshed of the Civil War.
City-owned for decades, the station has several times come close to its demise.
In the 1980s, it sat crumbling and vacant amid blighted warehouses. In the 1990s, it was reborn as a Civil War museum but, hard up for visitors and money, closed in late 2007.
Soon after, the city announced it would seek a new tenant. Preservationists and the Friends halted the process, worried that a developer would snatch it up and raze or radically renovate the structure.
While the city considered its options, officials allowed the Waterfront Partnership, a trash and safety crew, to use the station as its base. On the weekends, the Friends offer anyone who wanders in a tutorial of the few remaining exhibits.
"There's no question that building can be better used," Kotarba said.
Now, the city landmark designation process is nearly over. CHAP, the preservation commission, held the necessary public hearings and needs only the approval of the mayor and the Baltimore City Council. A council committee is scheduled to take up the matter May 28.
As a city landmark, the building's exterior cannot be altered without CHAP's permission. But Kotarba said the RFP will require the tenant to abide by even stricter rules: Any plan must include a museum component. Any commercial use, she said, "must be subordinate to the history."
The ideal applicants would be a partnership of groups that can fully use the building, she said. She gave Westminster Hall and Edgar Allan Poe's burial grounds as an example. CHAP operates the Poe museum, but the University of Maryland law school has stewardship of the property, which can be rented for events.
The Friends of President Street Station remain skeptical.
"The question in our minds is who and just exactly what are they going to do in there," founding member Ralph Vincent said. "What we're trying to do is not only preserve the structure physically, but preserve those stories that made it important to save the building."
Vincent's group would prefer the station become part of the National Park Service.
It's a "very exciting idea," Kotarba said, but it can take years and an act of Congress. The station, she said, deserves a tenant sooner.