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Nonprofit seeks to preserve Baltimore's heritage

Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage, at the former American Ice Company plant
Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage, at the former American Ice Company plant - Steve Ruark
The Sellers Mansion at Lafayette Square in west Baltimore Harlem Park neighborhood had once been one of the grandest homes in Baltimore. Today, it is decaying from neglect.

When nonprofit Baltimore Heritage discovered that the square was the site of a Civil War army hospital that accommodated 1,000 patients, it organized an architectural dig at which hundreds turned out.

The Baltimore Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation designated the building as a landmark, and many people have been trying to help owner St. James Development Corp. save the building, says Baltimore Heritage Executive Director Johns Hopkins.

Baltimore Heritage worked with the neighborhood association to connect it with realtors and make people aware of the building’s history, Hopkins continues. Whether Baltimore Heritage succeeds with this project or not remains to be seen. But Hopkins is hopeful that the building can be stabilized and put back into use at some future point.

Baltimore Heritage was founded in 1960 to educate citizens about the historic buildings that were threatened with demolition under city, state and federal urban renewal programs. In the case of Baltimore Heritage, the group helped organize Baltimore’s citizen protests against the demolition of historic buildings and was part of the national movement to protect buildings of significant historic value.

When he came on board in 2003, Hopkins was the first paid staff member. (Today there is a second person on staff.) Countless volunteers have also helped to sustain the organization.

Though Baltimore Heritage is known for its walking tours in nearly 50 neighborhoods, its larger mission is to preserve and revitalize historic places, such as the Sellers Mansion. Baltimore’s historic places are great assets for attracting new residents and new developments. “These buildings lie at the heart of what makes Baltimore a great city of neighborhoods and people,” Hopkins says.

Hopkins notes that the nonprofit has dozens of projects underway to help save historic buildings. Baltimore Heritage makes the owners or community development corporations aware of what resources are available to them, such as tax credits, and how to get listed with the National Register of Historic Places.

Here’s a snapshot of three other projects that are helping to preserve commercial or residential buildings.

The Hebrew Orphan Asylum

The Hebrew Orphan Asylum in west Baltimore is the oldest Jewish orphanage still standing in the country, dating back to the 1870s. The Hebrew Ladies’ Aid Society ran it until 1923. Over the years, it has served as a temporary home for more than 1,000 Jewish children whose circumstances prevented them from living under the same roof as their parents.

Having the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places makes the structure qualified to receive state and federal historic tax credits, just as the tax breaks have aided the redevelopment of the American Can Co., Tide Point and others.

Baltimore Heritage has teamed up with the Coppin Heights Community Development Corp. (CHCDC) to redevelop the imposing four-story, Victorian Romanesque building at Raynier Avenue and Lafayette Street. The University System of Maryland and Coppin State University own the building and the land.

Baltimore Heritage and the CHCDC have just received a signed letter of commitment from Total Health Care Inc., the state’s largest minority-operated nonprofit community health center, to lease the majority of the building.

Coppin Heights CDC will operate the building when it is functional, in 2015, says its Executive Director Gary Rodwell. He is also associate vice president for community development for Coppin State University. Rodwell says he expects other health agencies to take up space in the 30,000-square-foot building. Securing a green grocery store in what is currently a “food desert” is also part of the plan.

The American Ice Company

Baltimore Heritage has also turned its attention to the renovation of the American Ice Company, located near the MARC West Baltimore station. Developer Ilya Alter is in the early stages of planning the property’s redevelopment. He says it will be a retail project, but is uncertain what sort of tenants it will get or when.

As with others, Baltimore Heritage worked with him to have the structure put on the National Register of Historic Places. With its proximity to the MARC train and as a proposed stop for the red line on the MTA’s Light Rail, the ice house is just beginning renovations.

The building opened in 1911 and was going strong into the 1980s when a fire caused by a gas explosion shut things down.

Historic Homes

When many people think of how neighborhoods are shaped, the focus tends to be on the big forces of urban renewal or redevelopment. But Baltimore Heritage begs to differ. "Neighborhoods are shaped by lots and lots of small acts by committed individuals. We know that strong neighborhoods are made by dedicated people doing big, as well as small, things that make a difference in their communities," Hopkins says. 
�Neighborhoods are shaped by lots and lots of small acts by committed individuals. We know that strong neighborhoods are made by dedicated people doing big, as well as small, things that make a difference in their communities," Johns Hopkins, Baltimore Heritage.
The nonprofit has worked with Baltimore City Councilman Jim Kraft to launch a Centennial Homes program. Recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the program lauds families in Fells Point, Canton and Little Italy and many other neighborhoods in the city who have lived in a single home for at least 100 years.

So far, Hopkins has located 10 such homes, and he’s on the prowl for more. “These homes receive a bronze plaque for the outside of the structure, a certificate and tremendous gratitude from all of us who care about historic neighborhoods,” Hopkins says. “Centennial Homes helps highlight the people and the many ways that everyday actions by ordinary people help hold neighborhoods together.”

Mary Medland is a Baltimore writer who has written for the American Bar Association Journal, Baltimore magazine, Christian Science Monitor and Chronicle of Philanthropy. She is a former editor at the Daily Record and Where magazine.

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