What happens when you ask a group of preservation leaders to name the 10 Baltimore buildings that most need to be preserved?
They start by calling out names in lingo that sounds like futures trading or racetrack betting. “PRR, 103, Stein, Hansa…”
Forty-five minutes later, a piece of yellow poster board lists 30 places that range from Pimlico Race Course to Bonnie View Country Club to the Gertrude Stein House, Mayfair theater and Eastern Female High School.
Then add a few more. It seems hard for them to stop listing, harder still to know what to delete- after all, preservationists want to preserve. Finally, the moderator suggests putting together a list of “no-brainers.”
They get down to 14 sites that represent stand-alone architectural masterpieces as well as significant cultural and historic pieces of Baltimore life in danger of being lost in the urban shuffle of neglect and redevelopment. To narrow the list to 10, the preservationists insist on secret ballots (no voting machines).
Three days later, e-mailed responses come from the group of five: John Maclay, longtime Baltimore preservation activist; Tyler Gearhart, executive director, Preservation Maryland; Johns Hopkins, executive director, Baltimore Heritage Inc.; Kathleen Kotarba, executive director, Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation; and Bill Pencek, director, Baltimore City Heritage Area.
No matter how many times the votes are counted, because of a three-way tie, the final list numbers 11 not 10.
Long may they last.
Thurgood Marshall House, c. 1880
1632 Division St.
History: West Baltimore native Thurgood Marshall, lead NAACP attorney in the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, and the first African-American Supreme Court justice, lived in this Italianate brick rowhouse in Upton from 1914 to 1920. Still privately owned, the house is one of several homes, schools and churches in West Baltimore where Marshall spent the first 28 years of his life.
Threat: Outside of the Upton community, there’s a lack of awareness and appreciation for this house, which is among the last tangible links to an important, uniquely Baltimore story. Many houses in which Marshall lived have already been demolished.
Why it should be preserved: “The ordinary Baltimore rowhouse has incubated extraordinary greatness,” says Bill Pencek. “This house is where the American colossus lived while walking to elementary school just three blocks away at P.S. 103, the segregated Henry Highland Garnet School [boarded but still standing], Marshall’s first public school experience.”
H.L. Mencken House, 1883
1524 Hollins St.
History: Part of an unbroken row of houses facing Union Square (one of few 19th-century residential city squares that still maintain their original character), this three-story brick rowhouse with marble trim and steps is a relatively unaltered example of the typical rowhouse for which Baltimore is famous.
The family of the renowned writer moved here when the house was new and Mencken spent most of his adult writing life here.
Threat: Inactivity. Once open to the public and part of the City Life Museums, it has been closed since the demise of those museums in 1997. Still in good condition, the house deteriorates as it sits unused. A private group, The Friends of the Mencken House, one of several interested in it, has an offer into the city to lease the house so repairs can be made. For many reasons, this offer seems to be stalled.
Why it should be preserved: “The best place to find the acerbic wit of H.L. Mencken is within the comfort of his own home,” says Kathleen Kotarba. “After all, it was here that he did most of his writing.”
Clifton Mansion, 1802, 1852
2107 St. Lo Drive, Clifton Park
History: The original farmhouse built circa 1790 was purchased by 1802 by Baltimore merchant Henry Thompson, who named it “Clifton” and added a two-story addition. Johns Hopkins purchased the mansion in 1841 and hired the leading architectural firm of Niernsee & Neilson to turn it into an Italianate villa complete with porte-cochere, arcade porch and tower. Sold in 1895 to the city as a public park, the golf course and tennis courts remain with the house, which is leased to Civic Works, a nonprofit youth training corps.
Threat: Deterioration, although the original dining room has been rehabilitated by The Henry Thompson of Clifton Society. Two other groups continue restoration efforts: Civic Works and the Friends of Clifton Mansion (including many Johns Hopkins relatives), which together recently raised more than $100,000 for repair of the tower.
Why it should be preserved: “I have to admit something of an inclination for the building, given its previous owner,” says Johns Hopkins. “But two reasons it should be preserved: First, the mansion itself, an Italianate summer house, is one of the last surviving in the city and one of the greatest in the country. Second, the benefactor whose mansion it was- his generosity and foresight you can’t really overstate.”
American Brewery, 1887
1701 N. Gay St.
History: Designed by “brewer’s architect” Charles Stoll, it stands both as a monument to the city’s historic industry of brewing and to the German immigrants who lived and worked in this East Baltimore neighborhood. Constructed by brewer John Frederick Wiessner as part of an expansion effort, the towering building reflects the whimsical architectural tastes of the late 19th century.
Threat: In an advanced state of deterioration and vacant for many years, the brewery stands in an area slated for intensive redevelopment as part of a proposed biotech park.
Why it should be preserved: “It’s far and away the most fantastic city landmark that still hasn’t been rehabbed,” says John Maclay. “Its ÔBrewery Gothic’ architecture makes it unique in Baltimore.”
Peale Museum, 1814, 1830
225 N. Holiday St.
History: Erected by artist Rembrandt Peale as the Baltimore Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts, this simple Federal building is the oldest museum building in the United States, and only the second structure in modern history specifically designed and built as a public museum. Prominent Baltimore architect Robert Cary Long Sr. designed the gallery. When Peale sold the building in 1830, it became Baltimore’s first City Hall. In 1875, the #1 Negro Grammar School opened here. In 1931, it housed The Museum of the Life and History of Baltimore.
Threat: Disuse. Part of the privately incorporated City Life Museums, which closed in 1997, its collections were transferred in 1998 to the Maryland Historical Society. In good condition, it remains vacant and closed to the public.
Why it should be preserved: “Baltimore’s a relatively small city known for world-class cultural institutions- the Walters, the B&O Railroad Museum and the soon-to-be-open Museum of African-American History,” says Tyler Gearhart. “Yet the first museum in America sits vacant and forgotten.”
Carlton Street Stables, 1899
112 S. Carlton St.
History: Built or rebuilt by Charlie Boyle, the stable was first used for mules that pulled two-wheeled trash carts. In 1912 Walter Kratz purchased it to house Arabber horses. Now the oldest continually used horse stable in the city, the two-story brick structure, with a one-story shed addition, side and rear yards, remains home to Baltimore’s Arabbers.
Threat: The African-American urban folk tradition of horse-cart vending, which dates to the late 18th century, is dwindling.
Why it should be preserved: “Arabbing’s a 200-year cultural tradition unique to Baltimore,” says Tyler Gearhart. “It symbolizes the important role of small vendors in city neighborhoods at a time before automobiles and supermarkets. It harkens way back.”
Mount Auburn Cemetery, 1872
2614 Annapolis Road
History: The oldest African-American cemetery in Baltimore, for decades it was the only such burial ground in the city. It was founded as a protest to segregation in white Methodist churches by Rev. James Pack and the Memorial United Methodist Church (now Sharp Street Memorial U.M., which still owns it). It’s the resting place of many runaway slaves, as well as one of the first African-American bishops in the African Methodist church, the first African-American lightweight boxing champion, Joseph Ganns, and many civil rights activists, lawyers, doctors, teachers.
Threat: Deterioration. Funds for preserving this historic urban cemetery are needed.
Why it should be preserved: “This sacred resting place is worthy of our respect,” says Kathleen Kotarba. “It’s Baltimore’s necropolis of prominent African-Americans as well as many unknown individuals who directly experienced the era of the Underground Railroad.”
Abell Building, c. 1878
329-335 W. Baltimore St.
History: One of the city’s finest remaining late-19th-century warehouses, it was designed by architect George A. Frederick and built by A.S. Abell, the owner of The Baltimore Sun, as an investment property. The original building materials include brick, bluestone, white marble, cast iron and terra-cotta trim, some now covered by metal panels. A Neo-Grec storefront blends with an Italianate faade in this double warehouse with space for two sets of tenants on each of six floors.
Threat: Once home to clothing industries, insurance companies and printers, it’s been unoccupied for years. Trees grow out of the roof. Plans to rehabilitate have been long delayed, and there’s a danger that the warehouse will deteriorate to the point where it cannot be saved.
Why it should be preserved: “This building has everything going for it,” says John Maclay. “It was designed by the architect of City Hall, George A. Frederick. It has a first-floor cast-iron front by a local firm, Bartlett-Robbins, and elaborate brick upper stories with white marble trim. It’s across from the Hippodrome, but it sits empty and unrestored.”
Pennsylvania Railroad Co. Building, 1905
200 E. Baltimore St.
History: Located at one of Baltimore’s historically significant commercial intersections, this three-story brick building was an early commission of Parker & Thomas, pre-eminent architects of Baltimore’s Beaux Arts structures (including the Belvedere Hotel). It complements their nearby Alex. Brown & Sons building and reflects architectural trends in the financial center after the Great Fire of 1904- as well as the speed of rebuilding.
Threat: In 2002 it was rumored to be slated for demolition by the owner, Edison Parking, and remains vacant with no effort toward rehabilitation.
Why it should be preserved: “It has the solidity of a steam locomotive,” says John Maclay. “So much has been lost in this area in the past 40 years that whatever is built on this block should be built around it.”
The Longest Block, 1911
2600 block of Wilkens Ave.
History: Developed by William Westphal, the longest unbroken row of houses in Baltimore- and perhaps the world- stretches almost a quarter-mile. It’s sometimes called the “Deck of Cards” because of its 52 houses, with two storefront end buildings acting as “jokers.” Built on land originally owned by William Wilkens, some of the Italianate, two-story houses retain original architectural features: marble steps, stained and leaded glass doors and window transoms.
Threat: Emblematic of once-vibrant city neighborhoods, some vacant and boarded houses and deterioration threaten it.
Why it should be preserved: “It combines Baltimore’s signature architecture with a world record,” says Kathleen Kotarba. “Let’s keep the record unbroken!”
Lafayette Square, 1857
Bounded by West Lanvale Street, West Lafayette, North Arlington and North Carrollton Avenues
History: Sold to Baltimore City in 1857 to provide a public park and encourage residential development, it was one of several urban squares built west of the city center. Elegant redbrick rowhouses were built around it in the 1860s, and in the 1870s four stone churches, which defined fashionable city living, earned it the name “Church Square.” Union soldiers camped here during the Civil War. By the 1920s it was a center of middle-class, professional African-American society.
Threat: Altered by some 1970s demolition, the square retains much of its original architectural integrity. But deterioration, abandonment and possible large-scale redevelopment threaten it.
Why it should be preserved: “It’s second to none as far as city public squares. It’s also been a bellwether of culture change in Baltimore since the Union troops camped there,” says Johns Hopkins. “With additional reinvestment it can continue to play the role it’s played since the mid-19th century, an anchor for the community.”