For a long time, one of my stops whenever I took anyone on a tour of Baltimore was the old American Brewery, a grand, long-abandoned reminder of a time when buildings were built with style and grace— even breweries. The old redbrick relic on North Gay Street looked as if a committee consisting of Charles Addams, Edward Gorey and Edgar Allan Poe had designed it. It was a sad and magnificent wonder to behold, towering over the eastside. My visitors never failed to marvel on this weirdly Gothic bit of the 19th century left to rot like a beached ship. And now it has been saved.
Although I am not a sentimental fellow, I like happy endings and the American Brewery deserved a happy ending. Let’s face it: The city has an abysmal track record for preserving its past. There seems an almost depraved indifference to history. In Baltimore, nothing is sacred.
So many fine old reminders of the town’s better days have been pulled down. You can smell the greed and the stupidity on a humid day. In the course of about a year’s time, the old Rochambeau went, thanks to the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Then the wrecking crew came for the 1820s-era rowhouses along St. Paul Place, demolished to make room for the Mercy Medical Center expansion. Then destroyers of the city’s past were in Fells Point, knocking down the rectory at St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church.
It was a wicked and ignorant thing to demolish the old Peabody Bierstube next to the Maryland Club and the Odorite Building on Mount Royal. And what is left now to remind us of where Memorial Stadium once stood?
If current memories do not horrify sufficiently then I suggest you buy a copy of “Lost Baltimore Landmarks: A Portfolio of Vanished Buildings” by Carleton Jones, an excellent book that chronicles Baltimore’s longstanding and sordid abuse of its historic buildings. Many Baltimorons are still alive who remember the demolition of the Emerson Hotel, the Italianate townhouses on the eastside of Mount Vernon Place and the St. James Hotel at the south end of Mount Vernon Place.
True, the Rochambeau was not the Pitti Palace— hell, it was a residential hotel in its final writhings— but then look what replaces the old buildings that have been demolished. Not the hanging gardens at Nineveh! Mostly parking lots.
Remember the Tower Building on Guilford Avenue at Baltimore Street? Plenty of parking down there now. Or the Stanley Theatre in the 500 block of North Howard Street? Now a parking lot. What about the Southern Hotel? Parking lot! The Royal Theater— a near holy shrine to the finest black entertainers in America— razed in 1971!
With the economy in a shambles and construction projects stalling across town as I write this, it is an especially grim time to muse on what has been lost and what will never be recovered. No one will ever fight to preserve Baltimore’s oldest CVS. Ditto Rite-Aid. Will there come a time when the nation’s oldest Bedding Barn is nominated for the National Register? The most venerable Taco Bell? The most hallowed Jiffy Lube?
H.L. Mencken called this “the libido for the ugly” in an essay by the same name. He was essentially predicting sprawl, commenting on what he called “the love of ugliness for its own sake, the lust to make the world intolerable.” Mencken knew Charm City.
The suburbs that ring Baltimore suffer the same fate. There are only a few buildings between the traffic circle in Towson and the Pennsylvania line that are not crimes against nature, brutish insults to any sense of aesthetics. The critic Guy Davenport called this “making it uglier on the way to the airport” and he got that right.
We are already spiraling into a time when shopping centers— strip malls— are being abandoned. They look like sets for B movies. Once the anchor store goes, Bunky, it’s good night, nurse. I saw one just the other day on Perring Parkway just north of Northern Parkway. Check it out. If gas goes up again, Hunt Valley will be as remote as Diego Garcia.
Baltimore does not need to be an ugly town. She has a grand past and grand buildings. There are squares in Baltimore that remain magnificent, almost European. Is it any wonder that when they filmed the movie of Henry James’ novel “Washington Square” some years ago that Union Square was the set?
I realize that the Inner Harbor was a mess before its Rouse-ification. I was there the day it opened in 1980. But the Inner Harbor today could be in Kansas, it’s so devoid of personality. It has all the charm of a Motel 6. Fuddruckers and the Rusty Scupper are not Les Deux Magots or Brasserie Lipp. Harbor East is now uglier than Indianapolis. Many of these buildings look like airport parking garages and I believe some may be.
The saving of the American Brewery—which reopens next spring— proves that it is indeed possible to preserve the past. It is not cheap to do so. Nor is it easy. But it is honorable work. And like most things that matter, it is worth doing and worth doing well. A century, two centuries, from now, people will marvel at that grand old remnant of the 19th century looking down on our town.