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Editorial: Why preservation matters

Planners and developers typically look to the future: a pedestrian bridge spanning the Inner Harbor, an $85 million restaurant and entertainment complex at Towson Square, a mixed-use project in Rockville with 263 apartments and a 140-room hotel on the site of a movie theater parking lot.

But two restoration projects, one in Baltimore and one in Baltimore County, show the importance of paying attention to the past. Last month, the Baltimore Museum of Art announced it will celebrate its 100th anniversary in November 2014 by reopening the original Merrick Entrance with its grand, sweeping steps as part of a $28 million renovation. This week, Sheppard Pratt Health System finished the $1.5 million restoration of its 153-year-old gatehouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Maryland is full of architectural gems, some of them less well known than they should be. How many Baltimore residents have ventured into Leakin Park to see Orianda House, the magnificent mansion built for the Winans family in the 1850s? How many vacationers have explored behind the visitors center near the bridge to Assateague Island to visit the Rackliffe House, on an 18th century plantation overlooking Sinepuxent Bay? How many Anne Arundel County residents know that Highland Beach is the site of Twin Oaks, a summer cottage built for Frederick Douglass in 1895?

Taking care of the fabric of a city or county takes time and dedication — and money. But the impulse to preserve the past is to be applauded. It’s what drives plans to conserve the former Read’s Drug Store at Howard and Lexington streets in the city, the site of a sit-in against segregation in 1955, or to develop Frederick’s Golden Mile, the Route 40 corridor leading into the city, into a vision for today that respects the buildings of yesterday.

The Baltimore City Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation routinely advocates for historic buildings in Baltimore, often at political peril. In the counties, and in cities such as Annapolis, historic preservation boards and commissions also take up the cause of historic structures, even as suburban sprawl creeps into what were once farms and homesteads.

Dr. Steven S. Sharfstein, president and chief executive officer of Sheppard Pratt, recognized the sometimes subtle ties between institutions and the buildings they occupy in his comments on the completion of the gatehouse restoration.

“Preserving the history of Sheppard Pratt and fulfilling the vision of founder Moses Sheppard to provide quality care to individuals with mental illness is of the utmost importance to our health system,” Dr. Sharfstein said. “As the first visual representation of our campus, we are elated to reveal the restored gatehouse and are proud as it continues to welcome everyone who enters.”

That’s a good lesson for developers and planners.