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In Mount Vernon, a historic preservation fiasco

Business & Developmentby Fern Shen11:41 amSep 14, 20210

Historic Mt. Vernon building, damaged by construction project next door, likely to be demolished

CHAP oversight of historic properties under question after mishap involving former Grand Central nightclub building

Above: Some of the cracks that appeared in 4 East Eager Street in Mt. Vernon after work began next door. (Fern Shen)

When crews began demolishing the back of the former Grand Central nightclub for a planned eight-story office redevelopment in Mount Vernon, residents of the historic building next door noticed loud construction noise and, then, something more surprising:

Large cracks appeared under the windows and at one corner of the ornate Italianate structure dating back to the 1860s.

In one of the apartments, ceiling plaster came crashing down. The large marble doorstep at the building’s front entrance cracked in two.

The owners of their building, Landmark Partners – who also own the Grand Central building where the construction work was taking place – moved tenants to a hotel for a couple of weeks and then delivered the bad news.

“They said our building was deemed uninhabitable,” said Jessica Pryor, who had lived there for more than a year.

Because of severe structural damage, it appears that 4 East Eager is going to have to be torn down.

Still living in the area, Pryor and others will be watching closely as the city’s emergency request to demolish the structure comes before the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) today.

The unhappy former residents  want to know how the damage occurred, whether repairs are possible and whether the city has the authority – and the resolve – to make the owners construct a new building that looks like the original.

“What materials will they have to use? What standard will they to build to?” asked Christopher Hyde, who has lived in Mt. Vernon for six years.

An eight-story office building is rising from the former Grand Central nightclub at the corner of Charles and Eager streets. Behind the red crane, the damaged building slated for demolition. (Fern Shen)

An eight-story office building is rising from the former Grand Central nightclub at the corner of Charles and Eager streets. Located behind the red crane, the damaged building at 4 East Eager is slated for demolition. (Fern Shen)

But he and others plan to express concern about a larger issue: what they see as a tilt by the preservation body toward developers that is eroding the city’s historic neighborhoods.

“Over the past five years, CHAP has loosened its oversight and become much more friendly to builders and developers,” he said.

Jonathan Pannoni, one of Landmark Partners’ principals, did not respond to a request from The Brew for comment.

“Over the past five years, CHAP has loosened its oversight and become much more friendly to developers”  – Christopher Hyde.

CHAP Executive Director Eric Holcomb cautioned that the commissioners have a narrow role and would be looking at structural integrity issues only as far as they are a part of assessing the building’s historical value.

Responding to critics, he said he would not allow an inauthentic replacement for 4 East Eager.

“As executive director, I can assure you of that,” he emphasized.

But Holcomb also said that “the city may not have the authority to compel somebody to rebuild in a certain design,” adding that “a very close reconstruction is the best way forward and that’s what I will recommend.”

Questioned about the timeline of the proposed demolition, Holcomb said he was informed about damage to the building on September 2 and that the demolition notice “went up on September 3.”

Damage to 4 East Eager Street that appeared after the building's owner began gutting the former Grand Central nightclub being redeveloped next door. (Fern Shen)

Damage to the brickwork at 4 East Eager Street after the building’s owner began dismantling the former Grand Central nightclub next door. (Fern Shen)

Cautionary Case

Hyde, meanwhile, called the damage done to 4 East Eager “a real warning.”

“If we’re going to let developers do this kind of major work on 100-plus-year-old buildings right next to each other, we’re going to see more and more of this,” Hyde said.

He added that midtown Baltimore, home to the some of the city’s most architecturally significant neighborhoods, is especially vulnerable because of development pressure created by the Penn Station redevelopment.

“Mt. Vernon is hot right now. And the challenge is, there’s not a lot of open land,” he observed.

The demolition of historic buildings amid community objections – and under CHAP’s watch – has created growing frustration with the agency in some quarters.

In some instances, such as last year’s razing of the Cab Calloway house and the tear down of the Boss Kelly house in Poppleton in July, the demolition was done by the city.

In other instances, developers and other private parties have done the tear downs, such as the demolition in 2018 of the St. Vincent’s Infant Asylum in Upton. The surprise clearance of two 1840s houses in Woodberry, despite promises by developer Katherine Jennings that they would be preserved, sparked particularly widespread condemnation.

But even after that Jennings incident galvanized the community to successfully petition to get historic district status for Woodberry, demolition has continued – notably the razing of the historic Schenuit Building by new owners planning to replace it with a storage facility.

Fliers criticizing the developer have appeared in the area near the City House Charles project.

Fliers criticizing Landmark Partners have appeared in the Mount Vernon.

Former Gay Club Gutted

Landmark Partners acquired the former Grand Central buildings at 1001-1003 North Charles Street in 2019. They announced plans for two ground-floor restaurants, a main entrance with an atrium, and office space on the upper floors.

Early renderings of their “City House Charles” show the original four-story structure with its mansard roof intact and a new eight-story office tower attached to the back of it.

Rendering of the proposed “City House Charles” in the former Grand Central building at Charles and Eager streets. (SM+P)

Sketch of City House Charles in the former Grand Central building at Charles and Eager streets. (SM+P)

But now the mansard roof and all but the front two walls of the building are gone, and the facade is braced up by large wooden supports.

The community had been assured that the new design would incorporate elements of the old Grand Central, once the city’s largest gay nightclub.

With little of the original structure remaining, Hyde said that many residents feel they were misled by the developer and CHAP.

Holcomb disputed his “bait-and-switch” allegation, saying the mansard roof and interior elements that were demolished were add-ons to the building and not historic.

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