Two badly dilapidated 1920s-era apartment buildings have sat vacant in the middle of Spanish Town in recent years, but plans are in the works to bring new life to the historic structures.
Benjamin Stalter, who purchased the property on the 600 block of Spanish Town Road in October, said his goal is to revive one of the Mission architecture-style apartments and replace the other, which was severely damaged in a 2009 fire.
“We are just making sure we’re doing this thing right,” he said. “We want the right plan that will fit in with the history and character of the neighborhood.”
The Historic Spanish Town Civic Association recently got a preview of Stalter’s plan and is on board.
“We are thrilled that progress is being made,” board member Cheryl McCormick said. “We’re very impressed with the commitment and the enthusiasm.”
Stalter, who is partnering with Robert Lay on the project, said they have brought in a structural engineer to see what can be saved and are in the process of selecting an architect.
Established in 1805, Spanish Town is Baton Rouge’s oldest neighborhood and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The apartments were built in 1924 and are located between the state Capitol and the popular Spanish Town Market — a highly visible location in a lively neighborhood.
But yellow caution tape loosely hangs around the more severely damaged apartment building, which also is dotted with bright orange “No Trespassing” signs.
The fire wiped out nearly 90 percent of the roof and the gaping hole it left remains uncovered.
Outside, the weeds are overgrown, and the lawns and crumbling walkways are littered with old leaves and other debris.
Stalter recently filed an application with the Historic Preservation Commission to remove six trees from the property that are causing damage to the structures, as well as the sidewalk that runs along Spanish Town Road.
A bright pink notice has been placed in front of the buildings to mark the pending application — the first real indication in years that something is going on with the property.
Four years ago, the buildings spurred a public fight between preservationists and the former property owner, who wanted to demolish the buildings.
The Historic Preservation Commission repeatedly denied then-owner Stuart Nixon’s demolition request at the urging of Spanish Town’s vocal neighborhood association.
Stalter will have to go through the same strict approval process but said he’s committed to the historical integrity of the structures. He plans to use tax credits available for historic buildings, so certain historical standards are required.
“I’ve always had a passion for history and historical architecture,” Stalter said. “And I really like Spanish Town and the downtown area.”
Stalter, a commercial real estate broker, said the market is good in the area for nice rental properties. He expects to have about six units when the project is completed.
His goal is to have a plan finalized in the next month or two. He doesn’t yet have a cost estimate.
Historic Preservation Commission Vice Chairman Bill Huey said he would like a public hearing on the tree removal plan, rather than staff-level approval, because he thinks the city arborist should evaluate the trees first.
“Trees are part of the cultural landscape of Spanish Town,” Huey said. “One of our charges is to preserve the cultural landscape.”
Stalter said he would be open to having a hearing on the issue if the commission agrees that one is needed. But he doesn’t think that the trees hold significant value to Spanish Town, and his plans for the property include greenery more fitting for the neighborhood.
“These are water oak trees. They’re not live oaks that have any real value,” Stalter said.
The largest and oldest of the trees is dying, according to a private consultant. That consultant’s report, included in the application for removal, notes that the tree has a moderate to moderate-high risk of falling in the next three years, which could lead to downed power lines, property damage and even human injury. Construction would increase that risk, the report notes.
Aside from the trees, Huey said he’s optimistic that there is a plan for the property.
“Obviously, we want to see something done there,” he said, though he would like to see more details about the plans.