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Church With a View

Historic Preservation Of One Downtown Building Threatens the Existence Of Another

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Robbing Peter to Pay Paul: The Archdiocese of Baltimore may demolish the historic Rochambeau Apartments (pictured) as part of its renovation of the historic Basilica of the Assumption.

By Charles Cohen | Posted 11/3/2004

The Basilica of the Assumption is proving that historic significance is in the eyes—and minds—of the beholders.

The Basilica (full name: the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary) is in the midst of a $32 million restoration project, aiming to undo nearly 200 years worth of improvements made to the structure. The intent is to reclaim the original features that made the domed cathedral one of the finest examples of early American architecture. But this desire to return the Basilica to the original state it was in when it opened as the nation’s first Roman Catholic cathedral in 1821 has some preservationists fretting about the fate of the neighboring Rochambeau Apartments on Charles and Franklin streets downtown.

Designed by architect Edward Hughes Glidden in 1905, the Rochambeau stands in the shadow of the Basilica and partially blocks the view of the cathedral from North Charles Street. The Archdiocese of Baltimore, which owns both buildings, is considering tearing down the seven-story apartment building to give the Basilica, a much more prominent building from an architectural standpoint, an unobstructed facade on Charles.

The Basilica was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who was working on another building at the time, too—the U.S. Capitol in Washington. While Glidden gained distinction by designing other prominent Baltimore apartment buildings, such as the Cecil Apartments on Eutaw Street and the Esplanade on Eutaw Place, Latrobe has come to be known as the Father of American Architecture. The Rochambeau plays a supporting role to the Basilica—or in preservationist parlance, it is a contributing structure to the more prominent building—according to the National Register of Historic Places.

“The Rochambeau is not in the league of the Basilica but it’s a building worth saving,” says John Murphy, a local attorney who specializes in preservation issues.

Three years ago, the archdiocese paid $3.5 million for the Rochambeau as part of its effort to restore the basilica and its surroundings. The archdiocese also has long-range plans for a pilgrimage center on the grounds of the Basilica, which Pope John Paul II visited in 1995 and called “a worldwide symbol of religious freedom.” Demolishing the apartment building is one of several options under consideration for the project, but there is one hitch associated with that plan of action: The demolition of the Rochambeau would cost the archdiocese $3 million in tax credits awarded for the current restoration project, says Rodney Little, director of the Maryland Historic Trust, which oversees tax credits for approved restoration projects. Little says the Maryland Historic Trust can’t support a property owner that tears down a historic building to benefit a neighboring building.

“They went through a lot of trouble to qualify for the tax credits on the restoration of the Basilica,” he says. “If they would tear down the Rochambeau, it would negate the tax credits for the Basilica.”

Two years ago, preservationists were primed for a fight when the archdiocese originally announced that it had no plans to tear down the Rochambeau. But in recent weeks, church officials have been meeting with community groups to get feedback on plans for the pilgrimage center, a project that is beyond the scope of the Basilica’s restoration plan. Demolition of the Rochambeau was presented as an option at a recent community meeting on the project, but Sean Caine, an archdiocese spokesman, insists that the Rochambeau’s fate is by no means sealed. Caine notes that, in addition to proposing demolition, the church is also exploring renovation of the old apartment building and has invited contractors to submit bids on that project.

“Everything is on the table and everything is being considered as far as the future of the building,” Caine says, noting that the Rochambeau has been in need of costly renovations ever since the archdiocese purchased it in 2001. The archdiocese is in the process of shutting the building down, he says, and the last lease in the building expired at the end of October. Caine says the the archdiocese’s purchase of the Rochambeau made its block, which also includes the Our Daily Bread homeless center, a parking garage, and some rowhouses, entirely church-owned.

Rebecca Gagalis, executive director of the Charles Street Development Corp., met with the archdiocese in October, and she says the church presented both demolition and renovation plans to her organization. The organization has not taken an official stand on which option it will support.

“The archdiocese has not asked for that decision to be made yet,” Gagalis says. “I think they are going to see if they can renovate the building.”

City preservationists, however, are very clear that they want to see the Rochambeau renovated. Johns Hopkins, executive director of the preservation advocacy group Baltimore Heritage, also had a chance to meet with archdiocese representatives in mid-October. He says they offered two options at that meeting: demolish the Rochambeau or board it up and let it sit empty until the archdiocese can come up with another use of the site. Hopkins says the Rochambeau should not have to remain vacant. He thinks it will draw developers who have been busy renovating offices and old apartments throughout Mount Vernon and downtown.

“We feel the uses for it can only be limited by the imagination,” Hopkins says. “Certainly there are other buildings in the area that have been renovated into apartments.”

“It would cost in the millions of dollars to get that building in a condition that is livable,” Caine counters. “We are seeking proposals from contractors to find out if it’s something that they see as viable financially.”

Preservation attorney John Murphy says he believes the church is leaning toward tearing down the apartment building and is being “mysterious” about its intentions.

“I would feel differently if they were to build a new hospital or a school for the inner city,” he says. “But they are going to tear it down for the view.”

Robert Nieweg, director of the southern field office of the National Historic Trust, says that the archdiocese seems to have two faces when dealing with the basilica and the Rochambeau. He says the archdiocese has been open about its seeking National Historic Trust feedback about the basilica renovations but has been incommunicado about the Rochambeau.

“The National Historic Trust commends the basilica renovations and the efforts they are making there,” he says. “But you contrast that good amount of communication with the Rochambeau and it’s just a curious way to operate. We’re in the dark.”

Murphy and others say that sacrificing the Rochambeau would be a practice in historic favoritism, a controversy that has been simmering among stewards of American landmarks that have been modified over the centuries. Renovators are placing more significance on monuments and buildings constructed during certain periods, say the Revolutionary era.

Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland, says the Rochambeau has the unfortunate luck to be located next to what historic architects consider one of the top 25 historic structures in the United States. If it were anywhere else, Gearhart says, contemplating tearing down the Rochambeau, which was named for the French commander who camped on the Renaissance Revival apartment building’s site during the Revolutionary War, “would be ludicrous.”

“The choice is to preserve [the Basilica] as is and show all the accumulating changes over time,” says Gearhart, which includes the later construction of buildings, such as the Rochambeau, around it, “or restore it back to the time of Archbishop [John] Carroll and Latrobe. And that whole debate has flowed out to the block to some degree.”

The discussion has attracted the attention not just of local preservationists but national ones as well. In a Feb. 4 letter to the Basilica of the Assumption, William C. Bolger, program manager for National Historic Landmarks, urged the archdiocese to not sacrifice the Rochambeau to create a nice view of the Basilica.

“While we understand that the original appearance of the Basilica was very different and afforded spectacular views of the edifice from afar, the development of the city of Baltimore is, to say the least, in its own right nationally significant,” Bolger wrote. “Any attempt to justify the demolition of parts of the City to reestablish the long-lost views of the Basilica lack merit.

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