A New Jersey-based developer has emerged as the potential buyer of the iconic United Methodist Church on Mount Vernon Place, and local residents are raising questions about what he wants to do with it.
Joseph Novoseller, managing principal of Aria Legacy Group of Lakewood, N.J., has negotiated a contract to purchase the church and neighboring Asbury House, according to Stephen Ferrandi, a real estate broker representing the seller, the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Novoseller has not decided what to do with the buildings, although he indicated that Asbury House might be converted into apartments during a recent virtual meeting with Mount Vernon residents and property owners.
For the immediate future, however, he wants to subdivide the church from the Asbury mansion so he can potentially sell Asbury and retain the church.
The properties are currently exempt from property taxes (as religious institutions) and have a combined assessed value of $3.2 million.
Because subdividing a property requires approval from the city Planning Commission, Novoseller indicated that he would like residents and community groups to support his plan in order to clinch permission by the commission.
Both the church and Asbury mansion are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are protected by local landmark designation.
Because of its prime location marking one of the four main corners of Mount Vernon Place, the church is one of the most photographed buildings in the state. But currently, Ferrandi said at the meeting, it only has about 20 members.
Process is Faulty
Several attending the online meeting voiced concerns about subdividing the property and selling off Asbury House.
Without any firm plans in place, the sale of the building could be a severe blow to the 148-year-old church, they said.
That’s because the church likely needs new mechanical equipment and other improvements to bring it up to code. Using the roof, interior or parking lot of Asbury House could be the only way to avoid marring the church’s historic interior with inappropriate contemporary additions.
Architect Steve Ziger of Ziger/Snead said the process proposed by Novoseller is backward. It would make much more sense, he said, for the developer to come up with a definite redevelopment plan and then come to the city and request a subdivision, Ziger said.
Gregory Rapisarda, an attorney representing the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association, said that group’s members are also concerned that the church’s chances of getting fixed up properly would be reduced if the church is subdivided from Asbury House and there are two different owners.
If the property is subdivided, “the church actually would have a negative value, probably, given the repairs that it needs,” Rapisarda said.
Lance Humphries, executive director of the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, agreed, saying, “We’d like to hear that there is a real plan on the table to actually invest in the exterior of both the church and the house.”
Completed in 1872, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church is a Norman-Gothic style building with three spires and an exterior made of six different types of stone, including a green-toned fieldstone called serpentine metabasalt, with buff and red sandstone trim.
It stands on the site where Charles Howard, son of Revolutionary War officer John Eager Howard, had a mansion, and Francis Scott Key, author of the Star Spangled Banner, died in 1843. The sanctuary seats 900. The rose window is modeled after the one in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Named after Francis Asbury, the first American Methodist bishop, Asbury House was constructed around 1855 for Albert Schumacher, a shipping magnate.
At the time, it was one of the most impressive houses in the city, with a brownstone exterior, mosaic interior finishes, octagonal parlors and a domed skylight above an unusual “hanging spiral staircase” that rose three floors.
The house was sold in 1893 to George von Lingen, the German consul in Baltimore. He is credited with bringing in German craftsmen to create a second-floor library with intricate carvings, built-in bookcases and a large painting on the ceiling. The property was acquired by the church in 1957 and has housed its offices ever since.
According to its website, Aria Legacy Group has been in business for more than 25 years and owns properties from Maryland to Florida. Most of the buildings shown in its portfolio appear to be fairly recently constructed, as opposed to being historic structures.
Event Space? Apartments?
Novoseller addressed the meeting from an airport in Charlotte, N. C. His local attorney is Caroline Hecker of Rosenberg Martin Greenberg.
Others attending the virtual meeting included Peabody Institute Dean Fred Bronstein, MVBA president and vice president Michele Richter and Wesley Stuckey, and Mount Vernon Place Conservancy president Henry Hopkins. Neighbors on the call included Elizabeth Bonner, Andrew Rieger, Gregory Baranoski, Steve Shen and Jane Polanka.
Asked what he plans to do with the church, Novoseller said he envisions renting it out for weddings, concerts and other events in the near future.
He suggested that the Peabody Institute may want to use it occasionally. He said the church’s congregation could still meet on the property in a chapel separate from the main sanctuary, and that a daycare center in the basement could continue to operate there.
“Past that, on the church building, we don’t have specific plans right now,” he said.
Bronstein, Peabody’s dean, said Peabody has made no commitment to use the church.
Novoseller said his top priority with the church is to repair the exterior. Based on his investigations so far, he said, he believes the interior can be renovated for contemporary uses without needing any part of Asbury House.
“The way we generally approach it is, first we will stop any bleeding, meaning the roof needs some work and we’ve already had a contractor in,” he said. “We have not gotten back firm quotes yet, but we’ve found a specialized company that deals in slate and seems very competent.”
Developer Dismisses Costs
Humphries said renovating the church’s exterior will cost millions of dollars based on the $5.5 million cost of restoring the Washington Monument and the amount of deferred maintenance at the church.
“This isn’t a $100,000 project,” Humphries warned. “This is a multi-million-dollar project easily, as we know from our own experience at the Monument. If Mr. Novoseller could speak to his planned investment in the church, I think that would be very valuable.”
Renovating the church “is a multi-million-dollar project, easily” – Lance Humphries, director of Mount Vernon Place Conservancy.
Novoseller replied that he thought a large investment had already been made to restore the church’s exterior.
“Wasn’t there some historic government money that was given to the church, not 100 years ago but probably 10, 20 years ago, and they went through a major restoration of the exterior at that point?” he asked. “I think it may have been closer to a million dollars.”
Humphries said no such major investment has been made. The state may have provided a grant of $25,000 to $50,000, but “it was not a major investment that took place.”
“It is not a million dollar problem” – developer Joseph Novoseller.
Novoseller replied that he didn’t think the church needs even $1 million worth of exterior repairs.
“The building’s been there for well over 100 years, and there are issues with some of the stones and with some of the roofs,” he said. “But it is not a million-dollar problem.”
Caitlin Audette, a planner with the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, said any changes to the exterior of the church or Asbury House would have to be approved by CHAP since the buildings are in a local historic district.
She said exterior changes to the church also would require approval from the Maryland Historical Trust, which has an easement on the property.
Novoseller said his purchase of the two buildings – whose price has not been disclosed – is not contingent on getting city approval to subdivide the property.
A hearing date to consider the subdivision request has not been announced yet by the Planning Commission.
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