Today’s Five Minute Histories video is a bit different! The historic block we are featuring on West Preston Street in Mount Vernon showcases one of the city’s grandest Victorian buildings, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, as well as Baltimore’s very earliest switch away from Victorian architecture to a new NeoColonial style. This block was also the home of three pioneering women of science in the early 20th Century, as well as Baltimore’s mayor during the great 1904 Fire. The Greek Cathedral has begun seeking authorization to demolish five of the historic rowhouses on the block and we are sharing this video in hopes that it will help convey why we think this block and these particular rowhouses are important and should be reused rather than demolished. Watch the video here:
This is our series called “Five Minute Histories.” We record short videos about different historic places all over Baltimore and post them on our Facebook page, YouTube channel, and website.
On April 3, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott signed the legislation to create the Sarah Ann Street Local Historic District. This action will protect a critical core block of alley houses on Sarah Ann Street that have been owned by Black Baltimore families since they were built in the 1870s. Now Black Women Build will redevelop these historic homes. A big thank you and congratulations to the Eaddy family and Organize Poppleton for their sustained campaign to save these historic homes!
Update, 2-27-23: The building was demolished the late afternoon of 2-24-23. Click here for more information.
We’re sad to report that the historic Sellers Mansion on Lafayette Square had a terrible fire this morning. The mansion has been a part of the square since the very beginning in 1868. We at Baltimore Heritage have worked for over 20 years with neighbors in Lafayette Square, mostly the neighborhood association president Arlene Fisher, in trying to save and find a new use for this great building. Today’s fire looks like it completely destroyed the roof and much of the historic stone walls. It’s too soon to tell just how bad the damage is and whether the building can be saved. We’ll provide an update as soon as there is something more to report. If you would like to learn more about the mansion, check out our video on the historic mansion:
Today the nearly 20-year-old effort to recognize the important history and heritage in the Poppleton neighborhood took a big step forward. The Land Use Committee of Baltimore’s City Council endorsed a bill to designate Sarah Ann Street and parts of adjoining North Carrollton Street as a local historic district. The bill still has a few steps to go within City Council, and the mayor must sign off on it as well, but the recent actions are a clear victory for the residents and friends who have worked so long for this designation.
Back in 2004, Baltimore Heritage got involved in the work to prevent the Poppleton houses from being demolished. Our board member, Tom Ward, got Baltimore Heritage connected with neighbors, including activist Sonia Eaddy, who were fighting a proposed demolition project backed by the City and a developer based in New York. There have been a number of historic houses demolished over the last 18 years, including the home of one-time West Baltimore political kingmaker Boss Kelly. The recent action by the City Council will protect a critical core block of alley houses on Sarah Ann Street that have been owned by Black Baltimore families since they were built in the 1870s. Baltimore Heritage stays committed to helping the Poppleton community and will periodically share significant developments.
Recently the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation announced that it is seeking to demolish five adjacent rowhouses on Preston Street in the Mount Vernon neighborhood across the street from the church. Below is a little information about why these rowhouses (number 35-43 West Preston Street) are quite special architecturally and historically, and why Baltimore Heritage has joined the neighborhood association and people across the city in calling on the church to be a good neighbor and work to find a solution that preserves the buildings.
The city’s preservation commission is scheduled to hold a hearing on this issue on Tuesday, December 13, 2022.
Architectural and Historic Significance
Although the houses are rowhouses like thousands of others in Baltimore, they are one of only two rows like them anywhere in the city. They were constructed between 1891 and 1893 in a row that contains ten houses total and, along with the 1000 block of North Calvert Street, are a signature step in Baltimore’s movement from Victorian style houses towards Colonial Revival. They were designed by noted Baltimore architect John Appleton Wilson, who not coincidentally also designed the houses on Calvert Street.
If you look closely at them, you’ll notice a few unusual and wonderful things. First, they are not the classic Baltimore red brick that so many other rowhouses are made from. They are tan color that likely was intended to make these houses stand out from their older red brick neighbors. They are also grouped in pairs, with the front doors next to each other by twos. These give the houses a more classically symmetrical feel and also make them appear wider than they in fact are. And finally, if you look at the doorways, on each side is a classical Ionic column formed from rounded brick, a feature that architectural historian Fred Shoken says may be unique to this row.
In addition to these unusual architectural features, the buildings are part of an unusual history around early women doctors at Johns Hopkins. Dr. Elizabeth Hurdon, a gynecologist, was the first woman hired by Hopkins in 1897. She lived at 31 W. Preston (not proposed for demolition) with Dr. Florence Sabin, who was the first woman hired faculty at Hopkins Medicine and the first woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences. From 1927 to her death in 1956, Dr. Esther Richards lived a few doors down at 41 W. Preston (which is slated for demolition). Dr. Richards was a Hopkins trained psychiatrist and professor.
Current Status and Next Steps
Since the mid-1990s, the Greek Church has owned the five buildings they are now proposing to demolish. They have been vacant for many years, but the front facades remain in remarkably good condition. The back portions of the houses, however, are in serious disrepair, including a mature sumac tree that is growing through the back portion of one of them. We are working with the Church to get a look inside, and will go in with the knowledge that there have been many, many rowhouses in the city that were in as bad a shape or worse and were successfully rehabbed and put back into productive use. One thing we are blessed with in Baltimore is a deep bench of architects and contractors who have loads of experience with buildings just like these.
The city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) is scheduled to hear this issue on Tuesday, December 13, 2022. This is called a “Part 1 Hearing,” and in it CHAP will determine whether the houses continue to contribute to the Mt. Vernon Historic District. In other words, they will decide whether they are in good enough condition to still be deemed “historic.” If the CHAP commission does in fact deem them “historic,” which we highly anticipate they will, and if the Church continues to seek only a demolition solution, there will be a second “Part 2 Hearing” in the future where the CHAP commission will decide whether to grant approval to the demolition proposal.