A former union hall is now a unity hall, after civic leaders on Friday cut the ribbon for a new center for arts, education and job training at 1505 Eutaw Place.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott joined about 100 area residents and others to open the three-story community center, which was designed to break down barriers that previously divided various neighborhoods in Central West Baltimore.
The event included tours of the building and an exhibit about the area entitled “Division and Unity in Central West Baltimore” by historian Philip J. Merrill of Nanny Jack & Co.
The festivities will continue Saturday when the No Boundaries Coalition holds its 15th annual block party in the Eutaw Place median strip just outside the building. It will feature music; food trucks; kids’ activities assembled by Port Discovery children’s museum and produce from Fresh at the Avenue.
Under construction since last July, the $9.95 million project involved the conversion of a 1960s-era union hall to a 30,000-square-foot hub for programs and groups serving Bolton Hill, Madison Park, Upton and other communities in Central West Baltimore.
The renovated building contains offices and co-working spaces at below-market rents for non-profits and community organizations. It also has an auditorium, artist studios and exhibit spaces that will make it a venue for community meetings, art exhibits, music performances and other cultural events.
The lower level has a workforce development center with a commercial kitchen and training and event spaces. Training will be provided at low or no cost to residents seeking employment.
“This building as we all know was in complete disrepair, a blight on the neighborhood, sitting as an eyesore right on the main corridor, and you all took the initiative and turned what was a liability into an incredible asset for this community,” Scott told the audience.
“Instead of dividing lines, we are creating spaces that will bridge our neighborhoods and drive our city forward in the right direction,” he said. “The new and improved Unity Hall will unite neighbors throughout Central West Baltimore, from Bolton Hill to Druid Heights and everything in between.”
“This building truly represents a community vision and a community effort which has now been realized, and we are all witnesses to that today,” said Nancy Hooff, president of Baltimore Unity Hall Inc., the non-profit board that operates the center, and a principal of Somerset Development Company.
While construction is substantially complete, Hooff said, “our journey to fulfill our mission to break down barriers, to create safe space for creativity, cooperation and to invest in human capital, lies ahead of us and that will be our challenge from today forward.”
“I don’t remember the last time I’ve experienced as much joy about a community project,” said City Council member Eric Costello.
‘Good things happening’
At the opening, Hooff introduced Petula Caesar as the center’s founding director. Caesar, who started June 1, has worked in both the non-profit and creative arts worlds in Baltimore for nearly two decades, most recently as director of development for the Women’s Housing Coalition.
“It’s nice to have a place like this where you can see good things happening,” Caesar said. “One of the most difficult things to achieve is actually in the name of this building — unity…. This is not going to be easy, but good things typically are not easy, and that’s fine.”
The building opened in 1964 as the Union Hall for the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers and was one of the first examples of modern architecture in Bolton Hill. More recently, it was operated by the Empowerment Temple, which used it as a center for community programs but vacated it several years ago.
The conversion was led by a partnership of Memorial Apartments Corporation (MAC) and Somerset Development Company.
MAC, which acquired the former union hall in 2019, and Somerset have worked together on two apartment projects nearby. They renovated the former Memorial Apartments at 301 McMechen St. and renamed them the Linden Park Apartments, with 266 units for seniors. They used a former parking lot at McMechen Street and Eutaw Place as the footprint for The Jordan, a 62-unit market-rate apartment building with a street-level restaurant called The Tilted Row.
Ziger Snead is the architect for Baltimore Unity Hall, with Douglas Bothner, Ann Powell and Kelly Danz leading the design team. Southway Builders is the general contractor. Lenders include The Reinvestment Fund and Peoples Bank.
Working with an advisory committee, the developers held a series of community listening sessions that led to a vision for the building’s use. Advisory committee members are Ateira Griffin of Building Our Nations Daughters (BOND); Nabeehah Azeez of No Boundaries Coalition; Emily Cory of Single Carrot Theatre; Washina Ford of The Community Builders; Stephanie Ray of Baltimore Music Box; David Hansen of The Samaritan Community; Grey Maggiano of Memorial Apartments Corporation and Jessica Wyatt, a community consultant.
Baltimore Unity Hall Inc. is a non-profit organization that has a master lease to operate the building. Hooff said contractors are still putting finishing touches on the interior and it will be ready to occupy starting this summer.
Unity Hall has six signed office leases and has interest from others. The anchor tenants are No Boundaries Coalition; Single Carrot Theatre; The Community Builders; Baltimore Music Box; CHARM: Voices of Baltimore Youth, and Building Our Nation’s Daughters (BOND). Hooff said the development team hasn’t started marketing the artists’ studios and the co-working space, and CBRE, a commercial broker, is showing the commercial kitchen and events space to prospects.
The board has arranged with KLNB Management to oversee the facilities management aspects of the property. Hooff said KLNB manages operations for Motor House on North Avenue and Open Works makerspace on Greenmount Avenue and is familiar with the needs of arts organizations.
From the ground up
A native of Paterson, New Jersey, Caesar said she has lived in Baltimore for more than 40 years. A mother of two, she resides in East Baltimore’s Berea neighborhood.
Besides working with the Women’s Housing Coalition, Caesar has worked for Baltimore-based organizations including Baltimore Corps and the Baltimore Rock Opera Society. She also has been a journalist covering arts, entertainment and cultural subjects for Baltimore City Paper, The Afro-American Newspapers, and Baltimore Magazine. In 2018, she released a memoir entitled “She’s Such A Bright Girl: An American Story,” in which she recounts an upbringing full of conflict and tension centered on colorism.
Caesar said she applied to be the director because she was intrigued by the idea of helping shape an organization from the beginning, as the founding director. She said she was introduced to the arts in Baltimore by writing about artists for the City Paper and believes her experience working at the intersection of the non-profit and arts worlds will be good preparation for her position at Baltimore Unity Hall.
“It’s not very often that… you really get an opportunity to build something from the ground up,” she said. “I’m a person that enjoys charting new territory and creating new things. That definitely drew me to this opportunity. Also, it feels like everything that I’ve done in my life is a part of this job.
“I can bring the experience that I have in the creative arts and the relationships I’ve made in those communities. I can bring the non-profit experience that I’ve had in the work that I’ve done there. I can bring the experience I’ve had as someone who has lived in the city and has seen all the versions of Baltimore that have existed [going back to the William Donald Schaefer era.] Having all that history about the city and all the things that’s it’s gone through is very helpful in this role. It just seems like everything that I know and that I’ve done and that I’ve lived is something that can help me do this job.”
Caesar said she was also attracted by the board’s mission of creating a community hub that’s intended to remove barriers and build a healthy neighborhood for all, by providing resources and a venue for creativity. The name Unity Hall is a reflection of the project’s mission to “unify” communities that typically don’t have much contact with each other, by building bridges that can help connect them.
“This building…sits on the perimeter of a lot of different neighborhoods that, for the most part, are known for their differences,” Caesar said. “The human condition kind of creates similarities in people, and sometimes it’s hard to see those similarities. So one of the purposes of this place is to help us see those similarities in a situation where for so long people have just pointed to the differences.”
Caesar “brings a very strong record of community engagement,” Hooff said. “She was with the Women’s Housing Coalition, so she understands the issues of community. She was the community engagement person for the Baltimore Rock Opera as well. She definitely has a creative cultural bent, with her writing and her association with the Rock Opera. She seemed to fit our mission and understand the mission and be excited about the mission and the creativity that this job will provide her to build something from scratch, to initiate programming and to build the programming and the community support around that programming.”
Caesar said one of her goals is to make Baltimore Unity Hall so successful in bringing together multiple constituencies that it provides a blueprint for others to follow.
“I have seen a lot of projects like Baltimore Unity Hall — very well-meaning projects like this — come up in the city and not achieve the goals they set out to achieve,” she said. “My goal in leading this is to make it a model for other cities…in how to do community resource allocation and access right…. I’d like them to see the work that we’re doing here and say: That is a good way to go.”