Baltimore looking to sell, lease landmarks

March 24, 2012

It is the clearest sign of the direction historic preservation may be going: Even a building called Government House, a 19th-century mansion in Baltimore’s Midtown neighborhood, is now in private hands.

While some history buffs were horrified to learn last week that cash-strapped Baltimore is considering the sale or lease of 15 historic properties — prompting fears that “For Sale By Owner” signs would sprout on such icons as the Shot Tower and the War Memorial Building — preservationists say that, increasingly, this is what must be done to save them.

“It’s good for the city to go in and try to understand what the needs are and find the best steward for these properties,” said Nell Ziehl, area field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “And it may not be the city.”

Most commonly, preservationists said, local and state governments retain ownership of the sites and buildings, making lease arrangements with nonprofit organizations or private companies to operate them as attractions.

Sometimes, historic properties transfer to private ownership, which can limit public access.

In other cases, the transition can bring new life to a landmark that had been decaying or vacant. Baltimore is filled with examples of recycled structures, including the American Brewery building, now home to Humanim, a nonprofit organization that offers social and vocational services, and the Bromo Seltzer Tower, which is leased as studio space for artists.

Properties identified for possible sale or lease include the mansion at Cylburn Arboretum, President Street Station and the Old Town Friends’ Meeting House, which dates to 1781 and is the city’s oldest religious structure. Some properties, such as the Upton Mansion and Clifton Park Valve House, have fallen into disrepair; city agencies are still using others.

Planning director Thomas J. Stosur said the city is open to considering any new uses for the properties.

He said the city wanted to get a “fresh set of eyes” by hiring an appraisal company, Westholm & Associates of Annapolis, to assess the market value of the properties and possible future uses — even commercial ones.

“Adaptive reuse — that’s the current buzzword,” said Terry Davis, president of the American Association of State and Local History. “We get calls all the time: ‘We’ve got this fantastic old house. We think we’ll start a museum.’ But just having a wonderful building doesn’t constitute a need for a museum. It constitutes a need for saving the structure.”

Across America, churches have been turned into nightclubs, factories into apartments. With the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, what used to be called insane asylums have found new life. The west campus of St. Elizabeths in the District is being redeveloped for the Department of Homeland Security.

Not every historic property, though, can be repurposed for modern or profit-making use, said Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage, a nonprofit group. “The Shot Tower: What commercial use is there? We’re not making lead shot for muskets anymore.”

— The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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