Photo by Ed Gunts.

After 30 years of dormancy, the former Hebrew Orphan Asylum in West Baltimore is coming back to life.

Community leaders gathered today for a groundbreaking ceremony to mark the start of a $17 million revitalization of the building, located at 2700 Rayner Ave. in Greater Rosemont and vacant since 1989.

When work is complete this fall, the renovated building will be known as The Center for Health Care and Healthy Living at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. It will be the permanent home of the Maryland Crisis Stabilization Center and will have space for lease to other medical service providers. The stabilization center is a place for people to receive short-term medical attention and sobering services for those addicted to drugs or alcohol.

The project is led by the Coppin Heights Community Development Corporation, which owns the building, and the City of Baltimore and Behavioral Health System Baltimore (BHSB). Waldon Studio Architects is the architect for the renovations, and the general contractor is a joint venture of Southway Builders and C.L. McCoy Framing Company.

“This is a great day for West Baltimore,” said Mayor Catherine Pugh. “Thanks to the vision of our partners and funding from the city and state, we will turn a piece of our city’s history into a modern-day health care resource for the community. This investment shows our commitment to healthier communities across the city.”

The Hebrew Orphan Asylum has been a landmark in the Greater Rosemont community for more than 140 years. Designed by Edward Lupus and Henry Albert Roby and constructed in 1875-76, the four-story Victorian Romanesque building was an orphanage until 1923. After that, it operated as part of the West Baltimore General Hospital from 1923 to 1945 and as part of the Lutheran Hospital of Maryland from 1945 to 1989, when it became vacant.

According to Baltimore Heritage, it is the oldest purpose-built Jewish orphanage in the country. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.

“So many people in West Baltimore have a connection to this building, we knew we had to preserve it,” said Gary Rodwell, executive director of Coppin Heights CDC. “For years, we’ve had this vision of restoring the asylum, providing better access to medical services for the residents of Coppin Heights and improving the health and well-being of our community. We are thrilled to finally see that vision become a reality.”

The stabilization center has been operating as a pilot program at Tuerk House, a treatment facility located next to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, in a former maternity ward. The new center will be able to serve up to 35 people at a time. The goal, planners said, is to cut down on admissions to hospital emergency rooms while linking patients to much-needed medical and social services.

Across the state, officials said, emergency room admissions for drug- and alcohol-related illnesses have been steadily increasing. In Baltimore City, records show, there are more than 16,000 visits to emergency departments for alcohol- or drug-related cases every year.

“The Stabilization Center provides an alternative to costly hospital services by effectively diverting people to care in the community,” said Crista M. Taylor, president and CEO of BHSB.

She added: “We are already seeing positive results for people coming through the pilot program. This innovative approach promotes recovery and resiliency by linking people with substance use disorders to treatment and support services that will help them in their recovery.”

The renovation is a victory for local preservationists, who have worked for more than a decade to save the building from the wrecking ball.

For most of its history, the building has provided medical and social services to the community, said Baltimore Heritage executive director Johns Hopkins. “It’s thrilling that this 150-year-old building is going to do so again.”

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.