A former home to Baltimore musician Cab Calloway could be a major attraction in Baltimore and a potential “world heritage” landmark if it is preserved for future generations, his grandson Peter Brooks told Baltimore’s preservation commission Tuesday.
But the surrounding community supports a plan to demolish the structure, where Calloway lived for about five years in his youth, and replace it with a public park named after the musician, according to leaders of the Druid Heights Community Development Corp.
Those are two of four options presented to Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) as members ponder whether to give the rowhouse at 2216 Druid Hill Ave. temporary landmark status to help save it from the wrecking ball.
The discussion took place after CHAP received two requests to grant protection status to the three-story home on the grounds that it is one of two surviving Calloway residences, where the band leader lived from 1916 to 1921.
The city-owned building, now vacant, has been targeted for demolition to make way for a public park that would be part of Baltimore’s Green Network. It’s in the middle of a row of 18 city-owned homes that have been targeted for demolition.
The requests for temporary landmark designation came from Brooks and Steven Lee, a member of the Maryland Commission of African American History and Culture. Temporary designation would halt any demolition work so the owners and others could explore ways to preserve the building.
During a one-hour briefing held by CHAP, speakers and commissioners discussed four options.
One would save the entire block of buildings on the stretch where Calloway once lived and issue a request for proposals from developers interested in fixing them up as affordable housing.
Another would spare just the rowhouse Calloway lived in and allow for demolition of the rest.
A third would preserve just the facades of the houses on the block and allow for adding the proposed park behind them.
The fourth would save just the front facade of Calloway’s house and make it the gateway to the park.
Brooks started the conversation by arguing the entire building should be saved to honor Calloway, who was born in 1907 and grew up in Baltimore.
Brooks named other musicians whose houses have been saved, including Louis Armstrong and Elvis Presley, and said he thinks Cab Calloway’s house would be a strong attraction for West Baltimore.
“I think you’ve got a World Heritage site there,” he said. “I would love to see it like Williamsburg, just a recreation of that pre-World War II era. I think authenticity is really important.”
He suggested that the property house a production studio, so a new generation of musicians could record there. He said it also could be a place where parents could take their children to steer them away from doing drugs.
The house has an important story to tell, he said. “It’s not so much about me and Cab Calloway. It’s about the city and how we can bring about economic development and jobs.”
But Anthony Pressley and Jackie Cornish of the Druid Heights CDC said the community supports a plan to replace the houses on the even side of the 2200 block with a park. The homes on the odd side of the 2200 block will be renovated, but funds aren’t available to do the same for buildings on both sides of the street, they said.
Cornish, chairperson of the community corporation, said the vacant houses are an eyesore and area residents are anxious to see something positive happen.
“This community has been dealing with these properties for more than 20 years.”
CHAP member Larry Gibson suggested the third option, keeping the facades of the houses and creating the park behind them. But Western District planner Chad Hayes said urban parks don’t tend to be as as successful when they can’t be seen from the street, and saving the facades would hide the park from view.
Gibson then suggested saving just the facade of the Calloway building, which is in the middle of the block. Cornish and Pressley said that’s already part of the plan for the park.
“There was an agreement to keep this facade as a gateway to the park and we want to continue with that,” Cornish said.
Gibson also suggested the entire row of houses be offered to developers in a city-issued request for proposals. “Has the city ever asked for proposals from developers? What would be the process for the city to say to the world, ‘Give us your ideas?'”
Commissioner Kate Edwards said it would take up to six months to see if there is any interest, and getting to the point of actual construction would take even longer.
Pressley and Cornish said they believe the best way to honor Calloway would be with a museum or some other public building closer to the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, which has recently been named a state-sanctioned Arts and Entertainment District.
The meeting ended without the commission moving to name the Calloway house a temporary landmark. Commissioners were told any demolition activity is still at least six months away, giving them more time to consider the matter.
But CHAP executive director Eric Holcomb cautioned that “time is of the essence” because the vacant houses are in poor condition.
“These buildings are deteriorating as we speak,” he warned. “Some of these buildings don’t have roofs. Time is going to keep on knocking at them.”
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