The Sellers Mansion, a Second Empire brick house that has stood in West Baltimore since the mid-19th century and was once home to a railroad executive, was demolished Friday afternoon after suffering damages in a three-alarm fire.
Firefighters on Friday morning battled the fire at the home in the Harlem Park neighborhood. The blaze was reported around 9 a.m., and firefighters found multiple floors of the three-story building on fire. One firefighter was injured, the fire department said on Twitter; shortly after noon, the blaze had been brought under control.
The roof appeared to have almost entirely collapsed, leaving the inside of the house exposed. The outside brick was burnt, and parts of the façade had fallen away. Later in the afternoon, a crew brought an excavator to the site and began tearing down the historic home.
Eric Holcomb, executive director of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, said that the destruction of any historic structure is ultimately a loss to the city, but the Department of Housing and Community Development has the authority and the responsibility to remove a building if there is a safety issue.
“If a building is an imminent threat to public safety, they have the absolute right to” take it down, he said.
He said CHAP was called and alerted that the building was going to be torn down. “They have determined it is an imminent threat to public safety, and so we say OK.”
The mansion at 801 North Arlington Ave. was built in 1868 overlooking Lafayette Square Park as the principal residence for the director of the Northern Central Railway, Matthew Bacon Sellers Sr., and his wife Anne. They had relocated to Baltimore from Louisiana and were among the first to live along the newly established Lafayette Square, according to a 2008 city landmark designation report.
“The Sellers Mansion is architecturally significant for its late-High Victorian styling featuring Second Empire elements,” the city report said. “The craftsmanship and fine architectural detailing is remarkable and a wonderful example of an opulent and comfortable residence of the socially affluent in post-Civil War Baltimore.”
After Sellers’ death in 1880, his son, Matthew Jr., a pioneer in aeronautics experimentation who worked for a precursor to NASA, lived at the mansion. Descendants resided there until the 1950s, after which the building was used for various purposes, including as a headquarters for the city’s urban renewal commission and as a community center, city officials wrote. It was owned by entities connected to nearby St. James Church for a time.
The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001, and included on the 2006 inventory of endangered buildings by Preservation Maryland.
It’s been vacant for more than two decades and previously caught fire in 2021, although the Friday morning fire was more significant.
The blaze was also believed to have sparked another fire across the street, with embers traveling to a row home in the 1000 block of West Lanvale Street.
Like many ill-fated properties across the city, the Sellers Mansion was purchased with promises of redevelopment that didn’t materialize. Records show the mansion was acquired in late 2016 by developer Ernst Valery, who also bought a senior apartment building next door.
In 2019, Valery told The Baltimore Sun that he intended to convert the building into apartments for senior citizens and hoped to have financing in place by the next year, while the city housing commissioner at the time cheered Valery for stabilizing the mansion and rescuing it from collapse.
But no permits have been obtained for the structure since 2017, records show, and the building has sat surrounded by a chain-link fence.
Valery stood watching Friday as the mansion was torn down, and told The Banner at the scene that his plans called for 15 affordable units for seniors. He did not move forward with the plans because the Maryland Historical Trust said that, in order to receive a historic preservation tax credit, the project could only have six units and should reintroduce a grand staircase.
Meeting those requirements would have cost around $5 million, Valery said, and to end up with just six units “is not financially feasible,” Valery said. “So, they made the project infeasible.”
Renderings for the project that Valery shared with The Banner called for removing a section of the mansard roof to install an open-air patio on the third floor, complete with an outdoor fireplace and a bar. The basement would have been fixed up to include a computer lab and classroom. An addition would have been built on one side of the mansion to house an elevator shaft, stairwell and lobby.
Arlene Fisher, president of the Lafayette Square Association, said she had been hopeful about the plans to turn the building into a senior center with a space where community members could meet.
“There’s not much for seniors in the community right now,” she said.
After the plans weren’t approved, Valery asked the city to demolish the building, but officials assessed it and determined it was structurally sound. Going forward, Valery hopes to either build around six market-rate homes for the community on the parcel, or a house where older adults, people with disabilities and their caregivers can both live, called a Carehaus.
The developer is part of a team trying to bring a Carehaus to Johnston Square.
Valery said he did not agree with what he called the historical trust’s “all or nothing” approach.
“If your business is in preserving buildings, you can’t be all or nothing, because a lot of times when you’re all or nothing, you end up with nothing, and unfortunately we’re ending up with nothing,” he said.
According to a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Planning, Valery applied for a federal tax credit and a state historic tax credit for fiscal year 2021 to offset the costs of rehabbing the historic structure. But the historical trust determined the project could not be approved the way it was proposed.
“Portions of the proposed project do not comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation due to the level of demolition, reconfiguration and obstruction of character-defining features and spaces of Sellers Mansion,” the agency said in a letter responding to the application for the federal credit.
The Maryland Historical Trust reviews applications for the federal credit before they are submitted to the National Park Service. The agency outlined steps Valery could take to submit a revised proposal, but it never received one, according to the spokesperson.
In a 2020 video history on the mansion, Baltimore Heritage executive director Johns Hopkins said community efforts to save the building predated his arrival at the historic preservation advocacy group in 2003.
Even though the building appeared to be in terrible shape, an engineer determined the walls of the home were so thick that “structurally, the building is actually pretty sound,” Hopkins said.
“We’re hopeful that maybe after the coronavirus craziness subsides, and when things get back to normal, we’ll see some construction going on and another bright spot in Lafayette Square,” he said.
Liz Bowie contributed to this report.