The former Stewart & Mowen funeral home on West North Avenue is finding new life as Station North’s newest arts hub, with a proposed bar or speakeasy, exhibition area, “creative office space” and upper-level arts studios, under a $2 million plan by developer John Renner.
The first event is scheduled to start next week, when part of the building will be the site of an art exhibition, “Memento Mori,” that will open Nov. 18 and continue on weekends until Dec. 17. A pop-up vintage store will follow in February 2023.
Renner, the head of Timshel Development, announced plans this fall to convert the funeral home into “The Parlor,” a mixed-use space that takes advantage of its location in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District and the building’s past.
Constructed as a single-family residence in 1878, the building at 108 W. North Ave. was converted to a funeral home in 1914 and was operated continuously as a funeral parlor until 2021. The longest occupant was the Stewart & Mowen Company, Undertakers, from 1914 to 1985.
Renner said Timshel purchased the building in March from the Ronald Taylor II Funeral Home, the last of a series of funeral parlor operators. He said the most recent funeral establishments there served a primarily African American clientele.
A rear addition to the building faces West 19 ½ Street, also known as Graffiti Alley, the only location in Baltimore City where it’s legal to tag the buildings with graffiti art.
Renner said he’s seeking a speakeasy or restaurant operator for The Parlor’s main level, where funeral services were held, and the addition fronting on West 19 ½ Street, where embalming, casket storage, hearse parking, and mortuary refrigerators were housed.
“Activating Graffiti Alley with a creative business use that’s open to the public is one of Timshel’s key objectives for The Parlor,” he said in a statement. “This late Victorian-era building with a 100-plus year history as a funeral parlor, located in the heart of the city where the Ouija Board was invented, should hopefully provide inspiration for a future bar and restaurant operator.”
Renner estimates that redevelopment of the building will cost more than $2 million. He said it will be, ahem, undertaken as a certified historic rehabilitation project, and he intends to preserve the character-defining features of the building’s history as a funeral parlor, including a chapel, casket lift, and embalming rooms.
He said he chose Baltimore-based Present Company to be the project architect because of its experience with historic preservation and one-of-a-kind hospitality venues, including the Ministry of Brewing in Upper Fells Point.
Timshel acquired the property at the urging of Jack Danna, commercial revitalization director of the Central Baltimore Partnership. By the time of the sale, he said, the previous owner had ceased holding services at the building and allowed it to fall into a state of disrepair. He said the partnership recognized the potential of this midblock property to help stabilize the 100 block of West North Avenue and spark larger redevelopment projects in the Station North arts district.
Renner said he aims to start construction in March 2023. He said he’s making some space available for temporary events such as the “Memento Mori” (Latin for: “Remember that you will die”) exhibit, which will include cocktails, and the vintage pop-up shop as a way of drawing people to the building, showing the potential for new uses and activating the streetscape.
Timshel is a mission-driven real estate advisory and development company that Renner created in June 2021. Since its formation, Timshel has focused exclusively on historic buildings in central Baltimore, advising Cross Street Partners on the Baltimore Penn Station redevelopment and the Central Baltimore Partnership on Area 405, the arts center at 405 to 417 E. Oliver Street.
Before forming Timshel, Renner led the real estate development division at Cross Street Partners for more than 10 years, completing projects such as Hoen Lithograph, the Lion Brothers Building, and the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. Before joining Cross Street Partners, Renner developed market-rate and affordable housing in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Rwanda.
The building has about 9,000 square feet of space and Renner’s plans call for the speakeasy or restaurant to occupy about 3,000 square feet. He said the upper three floors have room for about 10 studios or small offices. The main entrance will be from North Avenue and the speakeasy will have a secondary entrance with a small courtyard from West 19 1/2 Street.
Renner said he’ll be seeking public funds to help complete the project.
“I need to keep space in this building relatively affordable to overcome some of the leasing obstacles,” he said in an email. “I love Station North and believe in the future of Central Baltimore. But the reality on the ground at this exact moment is pretty challenging. And construction costs will be high. The building needs new mechanical, electrical and plumbing, as well as improvements for life safety. As a result of these factors, I am seeking public funding: state historic tax credits and a [Maryland housing department] grant. The Central Baltimore Partnership already helped by providing a grant for a portion of the acquisition cost.”
Renner aims to complete construction by the end of 2023. He said he hopes to find tenants that can take advantage of the building’s history and the features he’s preserving.
“I’ve worked as a real estate developer for almost 20 years,” he said, “but this is the first time I’ve negotiated to have an embalming table stay in the building following an acquisition.”