Dan Rodricks Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Saving Sellers Mansion, at long last, could spark revival around Lafayette Square

Such a splendid day, the second of May, and you could smell the grass in Lafayette Square because a city worker had just run a lawn mower through the place, and then senior citizens from the Saint James Terrace Apartments strolled to the benches to enjoy the warmth of the sun and the shade of the trees in one of the city’s finest parks.

Lafayette Square is a symbol of West Baltimore’s 19th Century growth and ambition, its racial and class transformations, its 20th Century decline and its 21st Century potential.

Established in the 1850s, the square inspired mighty stone churches and grand rowhouses, occupied in those days completely by whites. “Situated on the crest of a hill, the skyline of Lafayette Square, with its many churches, created for the Victorians as close an image of the City of God as they could attain,” the Baltimore architect David Gleason wrote in an email after my March 12 column on the area.

By the 1920s, the residents were almost completely black. (The late congressman, Parren Mitchell, had a house facing the square). Then, in time, the area was abandoned as a prestigious residence of doctors, dentists, teachers and other professionals. As the city lost middle-class population, Lafayette Square suffered from the same kind of neglect that marked a lot of neighborhoods in increasingly poor West Baltimore.

But the park is still a beauty, and many of the homes remain occupied. Almost all of the abandoned three-story rowhouses look prime for renewal, and there is again a sense that renewal will come — starting with the house at the corner of Arlington Avenue and Lanvale Street.

There sits the old Sellers place — not a rowhouse, but a detached, Italianate-style mansion constructed 150 years ago by a former slave owner from Louisiana who moved to Baltimore after the Civil War. The mansion has been empty and falling apart for years; at dusk it might remind you of the iconic house overlooking the Bates Motel in “Psycho.” The Sellers Mansion is the symbol-within-the-symbol of Lafayette Square: A historic structure losing the battle against time, rain and indifference.

As a recent study from the Urban Institute affirmed, real estate investment in Baltimore has gone mainly to white, better-off neighborhoods over black and poor ones. There have been more loans to residential and commercial developers in neighborhoods already doing well than in those struggling for attention. Much of West Baltimore has been ignored.

But here comes Ernst Valery to do what many thought would never happen — save the Sellers Mansion. He bought it out of receivership a couple of years ago for $10,000 and intends to convert its 7,200-square feet, on three stories, into apartments for senior citizens. Michael Braverman, the city’s housing commissioner, credits Valery with stabilizing the mansion and rescuing it from collapse.

“We cleared the trash and fallen walls and stairs inside,” Valery says. “We placed a temporary roof and completed an archeological dig. ... Saving the building is the primary goal.”

Valery, a busy and experienced developer with expertise in using historic tax credits to finance projects, knew nothing about the Sellers Mansion until he got involved in the renovation of the 10-story Saint James apartments next door. That building and its residents will soon get long overdue improvements — and Valery estimates total investment, between the Sellers Mansion and the Saint James, at $30 million over the next five years. He’s still working on financing the mansion project, but thinks he could have it completed by the end of 2020.

That would be huge for Lafayette Square.

One of Catherine Pugh’s accomplishments during her abbreviated tenure as mayor was the establishment of a fund for investment in historically neglected neighborhoods. It could spark revivals in West Baltimore that had previously been impossible to imagine.

The other day, Braverman stood in front of the Sellers Mansion and pointed across Lanvale Street to three vacant rowhouses the city paid to structurally stabilize and recently sold at auction. “Now, look down the street,” he said. “You see that building where Lanvale turns a bit? That’s Upton Mansion.”

Another abandoned manor, built in 1838, the Upton is being stabilized with $250,000 in state funds, something affirmed on the second of May by the screech of a circular saw. The city just put out a request for proposals on the place. “There’s only so much time you can ignore these properties,” Braverman said.

A short walk away, in the 800 blocks of Harlem and Edmondson avenues, there will be a $10 million investment in 28 vacant rowhouses. Braverman announced the project just the other day. “Upton is poised for a transformation,” he said.

Public funds support Braverman’s strategy for West Baltimore, but no transformation is possible without private capital. Back to the west, just beyond Lafayette Square, in Harlem Park, we met Gladstone Ewing and Julio Baretto, partners in the renovation of once-majestic, three-story, bay-front rowhouses along the 1500 and 1600 blocks of Edmondson Avenue. They restored and sold one for $260,000, a second, with four bedrooms and a finished basement, for $280,000, and they’re planning to restore eight others. More about them in a future column.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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