October 14, 2014

Some Ruin P*rn

(* is so that I don’t get blocked, but you know what I mean…)

During lunch, I try and get out of the office, either to take a walk, or just drive around the area near my office. It’s an area that’s often over-looked, because, it’s where much of The Wire took place, and probably isn’t the safest area in the city. But I am driving around in broad daylight, with the windows up and the car doors locked.

Anyway… as I was exploring this week, and looking for another old abandoned mansion, I came across this mansion. sellers1

It literally stopped me in my tracks. I jammed on the brakes and pulled over to take some pictures of it. It just broke my heart because I could still see that it had, once upon a time, been a beautiful classically built house. And now it was sitting, broken and abandoned, just falling apart. The red and white X on the door indicates that the interior is in such condition that the fire department should not enter the house. IMG_4682

It’s a huge house, this is the side view, and had so much architectural detail on it. From the corbels to the dentil moulding on the roofline, to the gracious proportions, it had once been an elegant home.IMG_4685

When I got back to the office, I did some research and found that it had been called the “Sellers Mansion”, named after Matthew Sellers, the President of the Northern Central Railway and his son, also Matthew Bacon Sellers, who was an aeronautical inventor who laid the ground work for what we know today as NASA. He is also believed to have flown before the Wright Brothers (who had better PR). The younger Matthew’s brother and sister lived in the house for many years, and from 1930 until their deaths in the 1950’s, never left the house.  sellers2

My friends at Baltimore Heritage have this to say about the house:

Its carved stone lintels, patterned slate roof, original roof cresting, and its two classically detailed porticoes (one of which still retains its elegantly carved wooden columns and capitals) identified this household as one of taste and affluence.

There is evidence that the house once had an Italianate cupola above the mansard roof, which was probably used to help with the ventilation.

After the deaths of the siblings, the house changed owners a few times, but went through a major restoration in the 1960’s. The house was eventually purchased by a local church, who planned to convert it into apartments. There is already a hideous mid-60’s high-rise apartment house immediately adjacent to this house. imageHowever, the church has basically let the Sellers Mansion fall into ruin, with no consequences, other than public shaming. The “development corp” which they set up to convert the building is no longer in existence. image

Although I love looking at these wonderful old buildings and have a deep appreciation for what they once were, I think that it’s borderline criminal when people let them fall into this kind of condition. Especially a church, which exists for the greater good.

39 comments:

  1. I love that term which is a needed phrase because ruin p~rn is very much everywhere especially in fine art photography. Is it a popular thing to redo properties in Baltimore because it seems odd that such a property was left to decay like that. In london there is that one house on piccadilly but that is because it is always being sold on to the next developer and they make money off it without touching it...

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    1. It is popular to re-do old houses in historic neighbourhoods, but the church which owns this house, planned to convert it. However, they've been stalled for years now, so even if someone wanted to restore this house, they're being stalled by the lack of response from the church.

      This article will give you a good idea of what some of the issues are.

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    2. The city should be faulted for not condemning the building as a fire hazard, citing the church for violations, and for not taking possession though eminent domain. If analytic numbers are crunched and the vast eyesores are church owned.... this begs the question what cloak of holier than thou shall allow such abuse of the landscape.

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    3. If this or any other property is restored the taxes on the house would be astronomical. Perhaps this is the rational behind the apartments as several occupants would share the tax burden. If one looks at the factors behind no money spent on maintenance-- there could be no money, a probate issue, a corrupt city council deliberately keeping parcels off the radar to benefit a developer from scooping a parcel up for pennies. One has to admit the property is more valuable than the house considering the economic situation of 2014. If there is a fundamentally different approach to the decaying neighborhoods those that live near the decay must attend the city council meeting --- where are the young barack- obama -community -activist types in Baltimore organizing a grass roots movement?????? Unless a plan is offered for negotiation and other voters express their thoughts--- perhaps they, the neighbors have no idea that a group speaking out at a city commission meeting will at least get a headline in the section B of the newspaper.

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    4. I don't think that the land this house is on is very valuable right now. There are plenty of undeveloped parcels, mainly from where groups of houses have been torn down, rather than be an eyesore or a danger. I think that many of the people who live near places like these are so dis-spirited about anything they can do to make a difference. There are people who are trying to bring houses like this to people's attention. A great blog called "Baltimore Slumlord Watch" is making a big impact.

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  2. Dear Meg,

    I share your sentiments regarding the sad fates of so many incredible buildings such as the one you included. It is a tragedy for sure but unfortunately it all comes down to money and the lack of passion to keep these buildings alive. Dont get me started on all of the historically significant mansions here in DC that are bought of by foreign countries as "embassies" (many of them I didnt even know existed) and to watch them fall into neglest and disrepair while they completely destroy the interiors with cheap office partitions and dropped ceilings! Ok, enough of my rant but I am sure you agree. It is one of many reasons I love painting classical architecture. Through my paintings I hope to keep a buildings history and beauty alive even if no longer exists.

    Thanks for sharing this with us, though I am sad to think that this house is probably destined to have a date with teh wrecking ball.

    Best,

    Michael

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    1. First, congratulations on your new exhibit! Second, you and I are in complete agreement. I think our churches are your embassies! The beautiful old church next to my old house was turned from a classically decorated church to something akin to a Las Vegas casino! Including a throne for the "Bishop".

      I always laugh about "preservation through poverty" meaning that a great old building is maintained, but not "improved". This building was not maintained, so it's not being preserved.

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  3. A sad fate for such a beautiful building.

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  4. Meg-- I've only been in Baltimore a few times, and only briefly, but it is sad to see cities that have had their moment in the sun, their "Hay-Day" so-to -speak, like Newark in New Jersey (where I am from),
    now just shells of their former selves.
    There is an Instagram account called archi_ologie that posts old homes everyday with some of their history- "Mansard Monday" and "Deserve to Preserve" Tuesday, among their categories. I wonder if posting this home on there would get an audience that might help facilitate saving this historic home?
    Cindy

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    1. There are vast areas of the city which are being preserved and revitalized, but others which are languishing. It takes a lot of money and dedication. I will have to check the IG account and see if I can post.

      Somehow, I don't think this building will be preserved, mainly because of the organization which currently owns it. It seems that they have no interest in preserving it.

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  5. it breaks your heart as one can see it's former glory and knowing it was once loved. have you read about mario buatta, "prince of Chintz" and what he is doing with a home he purchased in thompson, ct? shameful.
    love your research!
    debra

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    1. Ugh... I do know about that house. A very sad circumstance all around.

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  6. Hi Meg. I feel exactly the way that you do. These beautiful old residences carry a soul. Our cities need to retain these beauties to ensure the continuance of culture and civilization. As you said, it is in the worst (or almost) section of Baltimore.
    xoxo Mary

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    1. It is in a bad part, but that shouldn't have precluded someone from living there and maintaining it.

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  7. So sad! What a tragedy! I want to win the lottery and buy / restore these homes!!

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    1. I know... As Michael mentioned, think about all those houses on Embassy Row that have been closed and abandoned.

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  8. i am with Loi on this one + if only I could win the lottery + buy/restore these beautiful homes. xxpeggybraswelldesign.com

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  9. Yes, at one time this was a beautiful house. It always puzzles me how some houses fall to ruin. I was out driving around and came upon what was once a lovely home - now a ruin sitting on the edge of a cornfield. I wonder... what happened? I know around my parts, many farmers built the new modern ranch style houses in the 50's and just let the big 'old' house fall to ruin. When I was a child there was a huge old house on the highway - my grandma told me it had once be a stagecoach stop so I was enthralled - by the time I was in high school (70's) it was torn down. Grandma was angry when she found out the farmer who owned it could of sold it time and again but kept hold of it -the area is now planted in corn. Some people just do not see the value in a old house. It angers me too!

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    1. There are a lot of people who don't have an appreciation of old houses. I remember one of the "real housewives" saying that she didn't want to live in a house where someone had lived already. Idiot.

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  10. Thank you so much for your post. I have driven by this property many times and often wondered how it came to fall into ruin and what its history is. I agree that there is little hope this house will be restored based on the current condition and the general crumbling of much of this neighborhood. But thanks for solving the mystery for me.

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    1. I've explored that area before, but just hadn't seen that house. Must have missed that block!

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  11. I forgot to add the salient detail that the brother was found dead in the house, sitting in a chair and wearing a 20-year old suit. Although he had a lot of money, he was a recluse. Very sad. Maybe the house just has bad mojo.

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  12. Hello Meg, My heart bleeds for this house. The fact that the roof seems to be going is not a good sign, but overall it looks sound enough to restore.

    Cleveland has thousands of of fine old houses and buildings, many of which have no real chance at all of even surviving, let alone being properly restored. In fact, in many of the historic areas, they are taking to "clear-cutting" the old houses, so developers can sell tawdry, fake-stage-setting houses, on which the real profits and government grants are made. Adding insult to injury is that these are advertised as having the charm of and being part of the "historic neighborhood."
    --Jim

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    1. The roof and the big X on the doors, warning everyone that the house isn't stable inside. I am sure the church "development corp" will just continue to ignore it and it will crumble.

      I agree about building houses in historic neighbourhoods. I was on the architectural review committee for my old 'hood and snapped at one architect who showed us suburban tract houses with garages facing the street - in a late 1800's neighbourhood with rowhouses. NOT!

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  13. There are a handful of well-proportioned free-standing houses left on the West Side, the old Birckhead-Bond place Mt. Royal is in decent condition but I fear for the fate of the Stewart-Dammann place, Upton, which is just aroudn the corner from the Sellers mansion. Looking at Lafayette Square now it's hard to imagine it was ever a fashionable address. I wonder what became of the graceful wrought iron fence that once encircled the property, it was already gone in the '60s photo so I assume it was purloined piecemeal by crackheads, maybe it was melted down during WWII?

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    1. I don't know the Birckhead-Bond house! Where is it?

      The city is trying to flog Upton and has put it on the surplus properties list.

      I imagine the iron fence was gone long before crack arrived. But after WWII.

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    2. It's at 2001 Park Avenue, I believe it houses a head start now. It was built in 1792 (!!!) and remained in the family until it was sold to the Friends in 1922. Peter Angelos tried to raise it for a high-rise back in the '70s. It sits on about two acres now, a far cry from its heyday when its property included all of present-day Reservoir Hill and Bolton Hill.

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  14. Meg - time to start a shame campaign. This is an outrage. And to think it is the Church. They are waiting to have it fall down so they can build (and sell at a huge profit) more of those hideous flats next door. Go to it. Jan (downunder)

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    1. I think this piece is going to be reprinted tomorrow in a local publication. Maybe that will help.

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  15. Gorgeous. Really. So beautiful.

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    1. It's just so sad to see a house in this shape.

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  16. wonder why the church has never just sold the house? so weird.

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    1. THIS is a very good explanation of what's happening with the house.

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  17. Commenting late on this Meg; however as you know I absolutely agree with you. These homes are so special and need the love and funds to restore them and have them in use!

    xoxo
    Karena
    The Arts by Karena

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  18. Man, what a shame. The only suggestion I have is for someone to approach the church who has the funds and desire to restore and live on that property. A persuasive pitch could be worth a shot if the church doesn't actually want it to go to ruin.

    I am investigating building a house next to a historic district at the moment in Richmond, VA--on a vacant lot, mind you--as my own personal residence so I have some understanding now of why developers come into those districts and build the sort of houses they do and it all comes down to money. I was frankly shocked at how much it costs to build a quality, not ornate or even very large, house. I am determined to build a house that fits because I love the area and think it's important not to detract, and I can afford to do it, which is where I think it has to start in historic neighborhoods--with people with passion for their communities--because for business people who only care about maximizing profits it will never add up whether you are talking about new builds or restoration. It has to be a labor of love, not profit.

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  19. I think that it’s borderline criminal when people let them fall into this kind of condition. Especially a church, which exists for the greater good.

    AMEN!!!

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  20. Could you send me the source of your earliest photo of the Sellers mansion? Ed Papenfuse, Maryland State Archivist, Emeritus, edpapenfuse@gmail.com

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