For more than 40 years, Baltimore has had a prominent civic space that honors Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, the former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor who is credited with launching the effort to revitalize the Inner Harbor.
In 1982, city leaders dedicated McKeldin Square, a large fountain and public space that architect Thomas Todd designed for the intersection of Pratt and Light streets. A plaque on the site honors McKeldin as the man whose vision “inspired the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor.”
In 2017, McKeldin Fountain was replaced by a public green space and the area was renamed McKeldin Plaza. Designed by Philadelphia landscape architect David Rubin, it contains several markers that bear the plaza’s name and information about McKeldin, who lived from 1900 to 1974.
The plaza’s largest feature is a semi-circular memorial with McKeldin’s name and the years he served as Mayor of Baltimore (1943 to 1947 and 1963 to 1967) and as Governor of Maryland (1951 to 1959).
One of the markers shows an aerial view of what the area looked like before the Harborplace pavilions were constructed, back when it was a working port. It also contains an excerpt from the 1963 speech McKeldin gave at the beginning of his second term as mayor, in which he called for the revitalization of the Inner Harbor:
“Envision with me…a new Inner Harbor area, where the imagination of Man can take advantage of a rare gift of nature to produce an enthralling panorama of office buildings, parks, high-rise apartments, and marinas. In this, we have a very special opportunity, for few other cities in the world have been blessed, as has ours, with such a potentially beautiful harbor area within the very heart of downtown…Too visionary this?…Too dreamlike?…Certainly not.”
Over the years, the space has been the setting for a wide range of gatherings, from victory rallies when the Orioles and Ravens made the playoffs to demonstrations and protests associated with the Occupy Baltimore encampment that was there between October and December of 2011. It is an officially-designated Free Speech Zone. Through it all, the space has continued to be city-owned, and the name of Theodore McKeldin has always been attached to it.
Part of the Harborplace footprint
McKeldin Plaza, about one acre in size, figures prominently in MCB Real Estate’s recently-unveiled plan to reimagine Harborplace as a $500 million mixed-use development. MCB’s plan calls for the land now known as McKeldin Plaza to become part of the footprint of an enlarged Harborplace redevelopment site, along with several lanes of traffic that separate the plaza from the 3.2-acre parcel now occupied by the two Harborplace pavilions that are targeted for demolition to make way for the new project. The total amount of land controlled by the developer in the project’s expanded footprint would be 4.5 acres, up from 3.2 acres.
According to the MCB website that provides details about the plan – ourharborplace.com — McKeldin Plaza will be redesigned as a landscaped public space providing access to four new buildings along the shoreline, rising in height from 10 to 32 stories.
This redesigned public space will include a retail pavilion, a 2000-seat amphitheater and areas for seating and gathering. According to the website, it will be called The Park at Freedom’s Port – a nod to the area’s history as one of the country’s largest populations of free Black people before the Civil War. The designs by MCB’s landscape architect, Unknown Studio, show no trace of the semi-circular memorial to McKeldin that serves as a focal point for the plaza today.
Freedom’s Port was the name of a community of Black residents who lived in Baltimore before the Civil War and who were mostly free. The community was located where Harborplace is now. Some of its members had previously been enslaved and migrated to Baltimore after they were freed by their enslavers. Others were “free-born” Black people. Still others were runaways or “autonomous urban slaves.” All were forging and defending their freedom in a state below the Mason-Dixon line.
In 1860, Baltimore had a Black population of about 27,000, considered the largest black urban population in the country, and many lived in Freedom’s Port. Author Christopher Phillips wrote about the community in his 1997 book, Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860. It’s considered the first book-length study of an urban Black population in the antebellum Upper South.
MCB managing partner P. David Bramble said he learned about Freedom’s Port from his design team, which researched the site’s history as part of its work. Bramble said in a community engagement meeting in September that he wasn’t aware that America’s largest freed slave population lived where Harborplace is now, and he’d like more people to know about that part of the area’s history.
“I never learned that,” he told the audience. “I’ve lived in Baltimore my entire life and I never heard that before.”
But what about McKeldin? How will the proposed redevelopment of Harborplace honor the memory of Theodore McKeldin and his role in rejuvenating Baltimore’s Inner Harbor? Why does a private developer have a say in rebranding a public gathering space?
There are few examples of recent cases in which the city has agreed to remove memorials or monuments honoring historic figures, other than Mayor Catherine Pugh’s 2017 decision to take down four city monuments associated with the Confederacy.
In this instance, the developer is seeking to expand its lease of city property so it can assume control of McKeldin Plaza and connect it to the land underneath Harborplace that it already controls, making it one large space. Unlike the case with Pugh and the Confederate statues, MCB’s goal is to increase the amount of public space uninterrupted by vehicular traffic.
And there is precedent of sorts: In 1970, the city moved noted sculptor Hans Schuler’s 1917 statue of Revolutionary War Major General Sam Smith from “Sam Smith Park” at the corner of Pratt and Light streets, where it had been since 1953, to its current location atop Federal Hill, to make way for infrastructure work related to the Inner Harbor’s renewal. It was the second move for the Sam Smith statue, which started out in Wyman Park Dell.
According to MCB, McKeldin Plaza will still be public parkland. But along with a long-term lease for the land, MCB is seeking authority to “program” what happens on the land and to decide what the area will be called.
City officials say they support the plan to lease additional city land to MCB to support its project. Before it can take effect however, city voters must approve a City Charter amendment permitting the developer to lease additional city land, just as voters supported the Rouse Company’s request to lease city land for the construction of Harborplace in a 1978 referendum. City Council legislation was recently introduced to authorize a public referendum on the matter in November of 2024.
Bramble said he fully intends to find another way to honor McKeldin in MCB’s redevelopment of Harborplace. He said he can’t point to specific plans yet, but he pledged to find a solution. He noted that McKeldin’s 1963 challenge to rejuvenate the Inner Harbor is featured on the ourharborplace.com website, and he said he believes MCB’s plans are consistent with McKeldin’s vision.
“We have to come up with a way to honor him,” he said after a Nov. 6 community meeting. “We’re going to work with the family to figure that out. If you think about it, honestly, he’s the one who got the money in the first place to buy the land [for Harborplace]. We have to figure that out. We don’t have an answer yet, but we will absolutely figure that out.”
Courtney McKeldin consulted
Courtney McKeldin, the daughter-in-law of Theodore McKeldin and a spokesperson for the McKeldin family, said she recently talked to Bramble about his plans to redevelop Harborplace and incorporate McKeldin Plaza.
A longtime public servant like her father-in-law, Courtney McKeldin was the first woman named to Baltimore’s zoning board, and she served on the board for a record 21 years (1972 to 1982 and 2000 to 2014) before stepping down in 2014. She said she takes Bramble at his word when he says he will find a way to honor McKeldin.
“David Bramble assures me, in a phone conversation last week, that Mayor McKeldin was extremely important to the development of the Inner Harbor and he has no plans to remove the McKeldin name from the park he is proposing,” she said in an email message.
“I am counting on him to keep his word so, for now, the McKeldin family is pleased that he recognizes that Governor/Mayor McKeldin first initiated transforming the harbor for the benefit of the residents of Baltimore and its environs and tourists alike,” she added.
A ‘humane, comfortable’ space
Claire Agre, a partner of Unknown Studio, said her firm’s design for The Park at Freedom’s Port calls for it to be less formal than the squares of Mount Vernon Place, or Preston Gardens.
“It shouldn’t be a neo-Classical space,” she said. “It should be very humane, comfortable — a space where people can wander and linger.”
Introducing more plantings and pathways will transform the plaza from the way it is today, she said.
“Adding topography, adding organic, curvilinear pathways…enlarges the experience of the park,” she said. “It actually physically enlarges the park, too, because the topography gives you literally more terrain and surface to explore, versus a flat plaza where you can see it all [at once]. It’s both a kind of experiential and also real expansion of that site, making the most of the site. Lots of places for people to wander and linger and feel relaxed, versus a kind of civic plaza. “
The Park at Freedom’s Port is also intended to offer a different experience than Rash Field Park or other green spaces along the water’s edge, she said.
“We always thought of The Park at Freedom’s Port as being kind of a quieter respite,” she said. “You’re at the busiest corner in town. We’ve just calmed that down. We’ve greened it up and now we have this surprising oasis right at the water’s edge. So it’s not meant to be overprogrammed. It can host program, but it’s meant to be a green oasis right in downtown, with that connection to the waterfront.”
In terms of programming, Agre said, MCB’s team is in the early stages of determining what visitors will learn about the area’s history when they are in the park. She said it’s not envisioned to be part of the National Park system, but the designers want it to offer information about the area’s history.
“That will be an interpretive strategy, probably some combination of programming and signage.,” she said. “But we’re in vision plan right now, so all we know is we want a serene, flexible space…so that we can incorporate those programs. It shouldn’t be just a sign. It needs to be more than that. “
It can also be a space for rallies and other events, she said.
“The idea of increasing capacity for everyday use is simultaneous to the idea of increasing capacity for specific uses.”
Shadow studies and a museum
Some residents have questioned how much the public space will be affected by shadows cast by the building known as 303 Light Street, with residential towers rising 32 and 25 stories. Agre said the team has done shadow studies and is comfortable that shadows from the towers won’t adversely affect the redesigned open space.
“They’ll get shade occasionally, in the late winter,” she said. “In the shoulder seasons, you’re getting plenty of sunlight. We did test the sun shade over the park, because that was a concern.”
During the community meeting about the developers’ plans on Nov. 6, a resident asked whether MCB could save a part of the Harborplace pavilions for a museum, “one little section” where “people could walk in and out” and learn what was on the land from 1980 into the 2020s, and how it worked.
Bramble said he didn’t think it would be possible to keep any fragment of the pavilions in their current location. “Practically,” he said, “that would be very, very, very hard and super expensive.”
But he didn’t rule out the idea of salvaging or re-creating part of the pavilions for reuse somewhere on the site to commemorate Harborplace’s history.
The concept of a museum or interpretive center “isn’t a bad idea,” he said. “It’s done sometimes with historic buildings. You’ll keep a piece of a historic building and build around it. This concept, as we’ve outlined it, doesn’t really allow for that exactly. But that doesn’t mean we can’t come up with something, as we’re thinking about this…It’s something we should think about.”