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Neighborhoodsby Fern Shen1:47 pmMar 14, 20240

The King/Briscoe House, in the heart of historic Black Baltimore, was torn down last night

Residents say the building’s politically connected owner, Bethel A.M.E. Church, was guilty of demolition by neglect. UPDATED with church’s response.

Above: Remains of the King/Briscoe House in Baltimore’s Marble Hill neighborhood following demolition yesterday. (Fern Shen)

The fight to save the King/Briscoe House ended last night when a demolition crew clawed down the historic rowhouse, which is closely tied to Baltimore’s African American and civil rights heritage, reducing it to a pile of rubble.

As dawn broke this morning, 1232 Druid Hill Avenue was a jumble of bricks, ripped-up marble steps and chunks of the dentil molding that once graced the top of the three-story structure.

“I’m just sick about it. It’s so hard to fight against this city,” said Marti Pitrelli, a Marble Hill resident who has been leading the charge to save the building, which is owned by Bethel A.M.E. Church and whose worshipers have included many prominent city officials.

Among them: Sheila Dixon, who is campaigning this year to regain her position as mayor; former state senator and mayor Catherine Pugh, and former city comptroller Joan Pratt.

Both Councilman Eric Costello and City Council President Nick Mosby have sat on the board of Bethel’s Community Empowerment and Wellness Center, while the church’s former senior pastor, Frank Reid III, is the stepbrother of ex-mayor and current University of Baltimore president Kurt Schmoke.

Community efforts to preserve the building date back to at least 2015, when Bethel demolished the adjacent structure, 1234 Druid Hill Avenue, long known as Freedom House.

Visited by Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom House was once the headquarters of the local chapter of the NAACP.

Its razing made national headlines and was denounced as one of the country’s worst preservation losses of the year.

Area residents, preservation groups and civil rights leaders mounted a campaign to ensure that the King/Briscoe House did not suffer a similar fate.

“After all that – and after all we did – it happened anyway,” said a distraught Pitrelli, who is out of state to deal with family matters, but said she wished she’d been in the neighborhood yesterday.

“I would have chained myself to the the fence. I would have been arrested. I would have filed an injunction to stop it,” she said. “That block is one of the most historic blocks in the neighborhood.”

Pitrelli said she didn’t know why the crews from P&J Contracting started the demolition work so late in the day, completing most of it after dark.

“They probably didn’t want a confrontation with a bunch of people from the neighborhood objecting.”

Marble Hill Improvement Association members Stephan Hanley, Keshontae Lewis and Marti Pitrelli outside 1232 Druid Hill Avenue. (Fern Shen)

Marble Hill Improvement Association members Stephan Hanley, Keshontae Lewis and Marti Pitrelli outside the King/Briscoe House last year. Across the street is Bethel A.M.E. Church, the building’s owner. (Fern Shen)

Bethel Blames the Wind

UPDATE: After publication, Bethel spokeswoman Janette R. Smith sent a statement on behalf of the church’s pastor, Rev. Patrick D. Clayborn, attributing the church’s poor condition to windstorms.

“Due to severe wind damage incurred on Monday, March 11, the Baltimore City Department of Housing & Community Development concluded that 1232 Druid Hill Avenue posed a danger to the public safety of Baltimore’s citizens, necessitating emergency action,” Smith wrote.

An earlier wind storm in April 2023 “caused severe damage to Bethel’s structure, including a collapsed roof, prompting the church’s hire of structural engineers who advised demolition,” and Bethel filed for a demolition permit in September 2023.

“While recognizing the building’s historical significance to Baltimore’s Black and civil rights heritage, Bethel A.M.E. Church is committed to the safety of our community”  – Bethel spokeswoman.

“Further inspections on March 13, 2024, revealed the building was at imminent risk of collapse, with additional roof damage and a precarious freestanding wall, leading the city to mandate emergency demolition,” she continued.

Smith did not say why the church never repaired the damage or explain what plans it has for the now-vacant plot of land.

She noted that the church contacted the asbestos division of the Air & Radiation Administration at the Maryland Department of the Environment “to inform them of the city’s directive that immediate action be taken, and report that prior testing found the building asbestos free.”

“While recognizing the building’s historical significance to Baltimore’s Black and civil rights heritage, Bethel A.M.E. Church is committed to the safety of our community.”

Citations and Fines

Tammy Hawley, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), said the property was approved for demolition because it was deemed to be in a dangerous condition.

“It was determined that the conditions at the property had significantly deteriorated and the building presented an imminent threat of collapse,” Hawley said.

Hawley said the property had been reviewed by “our stabilization contractor,” who determined, “based on the extent of the damage to the structure, width of the structure and the width of the exposed sidewall . . . that an emergency demolition was necessary.”

She noted that Bethel Church “has been cited multiple times and fined for failure to abate a Vacant Building Notice (VBN).”

Hawley was unable to say how many citations had been issued or fines paid by Bethel over the years.

“I guess they just paid the fines, the city kept issuing them and nothing changed”  – Marti Pitrelli.

Pitrelli said she called the city frequently to complain about the building’s condition, but was disappointed her efforts appeared to have had no impact.

“I guess they just paid the fines, the city kept issuing them and nothing changed,” she continued, saying that the building could have been saved but was allowed to deteriorate, making it a classic case of demolition by neglect.

The bricks, marble steps and architectural elements left behind after the razing of 1232 Druid Hill Avenue by Baltimore's Bethel A.M.E. Church. (Fern Shen)

Bricks, marble steps, broken moldings and other architectural elements left behind this morning after the razing of the building. At right, equipment from P&J Contracting, the demolition company. (Fern Shen)

“You’re demolishing our history”

Pitrelli and others hoping to save the King/Briscoe House knew it was in jeopardy last spring when an “Emergency Condemnation and Demolition Notice” was posted on the building.

Leaders of the Marble Hill Improvement Association said at the time that uplifting their West Baltimore community would require preserving its historic fabric.

“If they continue to let these places crumble, it’s a huge setback. You’re demolishing our history,” MHIA President Keshontae Lewis declared. “You can lose it really fast.”

• Fighting demolition by neglect in a Baltimore neighborhood that shaped America’s civil rights movement (6/27/23)

A wellness center, powered by an ex-mayor, secures city and state money (10/20/22)

City backs away from raiding affordable housing funds for a Bethel Church wellness center (11/30/20)

Comptroller Joan Pratt faulted for voting to sell city land to her church for $15 (2/5/20)

Baltimore Heritage researchers describe the building as historically important because of its “association with the broader pattern of how African Americans sought opportunities in Baltimore before and during the Great Migration.”

It was owned by a prominent Black printer, George W. King, then was the home of a wagon driver, Abraham Briscoe, one of thousands who moved to the city from the South.

“If they continue to let these places crumble, it’s a huge setback”  – Keshontae Lewis, President, Marble Hill Improvement Association.

The city took a seemingly tough stance, telling Bethel to stabilize and secure the building, rebuild its back wall and submit a plan to maintain its roof, according to records on file with the Department of Housing and Community Development.

The city’s Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) voted unanimously to recommend the property be granted landmark status. But legislation to give the building permanent status died in the City Council.

It’s unclear what if anything was done to stabilize the building but by last June the back of the building had tumbled to the ground and the roof was sagging precipitously.

Councilman Costello, who represents Marble Hill, did not respond to questions about the demolition.

Promotion for a Baltimore Heritage tour last year of Marble Hill's Civil Rights history.

Promotion for a Baltimore Heritage tour of Marble Hill’s Civil Rights history.

• To reach a reporter – editors@baltimorebrew.com

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