Last week, the Baltimore Business Journal published a report prepared for Baltimore City by a real estate consulting firm recommending various options for seventeen historic buildings owned by Baltimore City. When the City first commissioned this report last spring, it prompted widespread concern over the future of much-loved landmarks like the Shot Tower, Peale Museum, and Cylburn Mansion. At the time, we called for an open process that would ensure a seat at the table for the many citizens and volunteers who for decades have protected and celebrated these important landmarks. Now that the consultant’s report is final and the City has begun considering options for the seventeen buildings on the list, we believe the need for an inclusive deliberation is paramount to ensure the sites under consideration can be preserved and remain assets for Baltimore.
We commend Baltimore City for focusing on the seventeen historic properties subject to the report, some of which are in desperate need of repair. Long term leases, money-generating tenants, and perhaps even outright sale should be considered for some of the sites. Many others on the list, however, have friends groups that have cared for them for years (decades in some instances), that have raised money for their maintenance and restoration, and that are current and active in their work. Clifton Mansion, the Shot Tower, Carroll Mansion, and the Crimea are prime examples in this category. Still others, including the Peale Museum, Roland Park Water Tower, and President Street Station, have groups actively working with the City to gain control and begin restoration. The people who have devoted themselves to the buildings on the list should be part of the decision-making process. The consultant’s report appears to leave out the time, money, and dedication that Baltimoreans have already put into these landmarks and to undervalue their potential for the future stewardship of these historic places.
We will continue to advocate for an open process as the City moves forward in making decisions over the fates of these seventeen buildings. The seventeen buildings on the table deserve to be occupied and restored so that they can remain assets for Baltimore. The seventeen properties addresses by this report include:
On January 7, the nonprofit youth training organization Civic Works announced that it has met its fundraising goal and is launching a $7 million restoration campaign for Clifton Mansion. The Mansion was home to Henry Thompson, a War of 1812 hero, and the summer home of philanthropist Johns Hopkins. It is now owned by Baltimore City with Civic Works as a long-term tenant.
For me as the executive director of Baltimore Heritage and a board member of Civic Works, and, yes, with a name strongly associated with Clifton, one great part of this project is the tie between the past and the future. Hopkins – the philanthropist – gave his fortune to start the college and hospital that bear his name based on his belief that the future of Baltimore lay in educating our youth and providing basic services for all. Civic Works today carries out that same vision by educating and training Baltimore youth and working to improve our neighborhoods. In fact, a number of young Baltimore apprentice carpenters from Civic Works will have the opportunity to work alongside master carpenters as part of the Clifton renovation project. What better place to bring past, present, and future together than Clifton?
The restoration work, which will take place over the next year, is a whole building project. It will include fully rebuilding the signature porches that surround the house, putting the main front stairs leading to the building back to their location in the mid-1800s, and renovating the interior throughout. And, thankfully, there is no talk of turning the building into another house museum. At the end, the Mansion will continue its dual role as office space for Civic Works and public space open for all of Baltimore. Stay tuned for a tour of this grand place as soon as the construction work allows.
Last week, the Baltimore Sun and others reported that Baltimore City is hiring an Annapolis-based appraisal firm to determine the “market value” of fifteen city-owned historic properties. Baltimore Heritage has asked the Mayor and the director of the Department of Public Works to make this process open and participatory—ensuring that there is a seat at the table for the many citizens and volunteers who for decades have protected and celebrated these important landmarks.
Our most important goal must be to make sure the buildings are occupied, well cared for and remain intact as public assets for Baltimore. These fifteen properties are irreplaceable reminders of our city’s long history from the War of 1812 through the development and civic life of Baltimore up through the present. In addition, the ownership for each building should be evaluated based on what is best for its repair and maintenance. There are many different forms of ownership that these properties could have, ranging from public ownership and public use, leasing to nonprofit organizations, or even outright private ownership and private use. These options, and others, should be considered with the long-term care of the building as the guiding principle.
All of the properties should be protected with historic designation to make sure they are preserved, regardless of who owns them. Twelve of the fifteen properties are already on the city’s historic landmark list, requiring the approval of CHAP (the city’s preservation commission) for any exterior changes. Additional protections could include placing historic easements on the properties or including specific preservation requirements in leases or use agreements.
Finally, although the current proposal has targeted fifteen buildings, the city owns dozens more iconic historic structures — The Bromo Seltzer Tower, Patterson Park Observatory, Flag House, H.L. Mencken House, Washington Monument, and Babe Ruth House, are all city-owned historic properties. If nothing else, the attention and concern over this study has put city-owned landmarks in the spotlight. We should seize the opportunity to ensure a future for all of these historic places by creating an inventory of city-owned structures and a rehabilitation and maintenance plan for each.
For nearly all of these buildings, from the Shot Tower to President Street Station, local residents and preservation organizations have spent years, even decades, working to celebrate their unique stories and preserve them for our city’s future. These leaders understand the importance of this history more than anyone else. They and the city’s preservation commission must be at the center of any consideration for their future.
Baltimore City-Owned landmarks identified for possible lease or sale