Preservation and Renewal
In April of 1945, the congregation of St. John’s A.M.E. marked the end of a two-year separation from Lafayette Square with a grand procession from Allen A.M.E. to its restored church on North Carrollton. A church fire in the winter of 1943 had severely damaged the building, rendering it unsafe for worship. Despite numerous wartime financial and material obstacles and the ever-present temptation to sell the burnt church and build anew elsewhere in the city, the congregation opted to remain on Lafayette Square and restore its historic sanctuary. Such heroic acts were not uncommon on the Square and form an integral part of the Square’s history. In 1873, the Church of the Ascension rebuilt its sanctuary after a fire had destroyed the roof and church interior. About a hundred years later, in 1993-4, St. James Episcopal restored the same church after a second fire had destroyed the 1873 roof and interior. Both churches stand today as symbols of renewal, thanks to their congregations’ commitments to historic buildings and the preservation of Lafayette Square.
The only detached private residence to occupy a prominent corner lot on Lafayette Square, and one of the first residences constructed here, the Sellers Mansion set the neighborhood standard for fashionable living. Built in 1868 for Matthew Bacon Sellers, the president of the Northern Central Railway, the three-story brick house with mansard roof rivaled its outer suburban contemporaries in size, quality of craftsmanship, and attention to detail. Its carved stone lintels, patterned slate roof, original roof cresting, and its two classicizing porticoes, one of which still retains its elegantly carved wooden columns and capitals, identified this household as one of taste and affluence. Although carefully restored in the 1960s and adapted to a variety of community uses through the early 1990s, the Sellers Mansion stands vacant and in an advanced state of deterioration. Although plans are said to be underway to rehabilitate the mansion, the mansion’s physical condition worsens by the day.
Although steeped in history and abounding in historic buildings by prominent Baltimore architects, Lafayette Square is not a designated historic district. As a result, few—if any—property owners in the area are eligible for historic preservation tax credits and other rehabilitation incentives currently offered by the city, the state of Maryland, and the federal government. Lafayette Square survives today because of the care and expense the Square’s residents and institutions have devoted to the maintenance and preservation of their buildings since the 1920s and because of the tireless efforts of the Lafayette Square Association to encourage homeownership and architectural stewardship in the neighborhood. Financial assistance for historic preservation is just one of the many short-term benefits of an historic district designation. A revitalized neighborhood and a renewed sense of pride in the community and its history are among the many lasting benefits.