The old Carnegie Institution building on W. University Parkway. Photo by Ed Gunts.

For decades, the Carnegie Building has been a cornerstone of the Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus.

Completed in 1960 with funding support from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the structure was the longtime home of the Department of Embryology, training ground for generations of biologists and site of numerous groundbreaking experiments and discoveries, including work that has led to a Nobel Prize.

Set in a wooded area at the corner of W. University Parkway and San Martin Drive, it was also one of the first major buildings on campus that didn’t follow the neo-Classical design tradition set by Homewood and Gilman Hall. Former Hopkins art history professor and architecture critic Phoebe Stanton said it was one of her favorite buildings not only at Hopkins but in all of Baltimore.

It’s not universally beloved the way some campus buildings are. Most undergraduates never even go inside, because they didn’t have courses there. Yet it’s a prominent building on the edge of campus, and it has played an important role in helping Hopkins maintain its status as one of world’s premier research centers.

And now the building is coming down.

Dormant for the past several years, the three-story building is surrounded by a construction fence, and workers have begun dismantling the interior. Some of the floor-to-ceiling windows have been removed.

On Jan. 7, Hopkins ran an item in The Hub, announcing the building’s fate:

“This week, contractors will begin work on the demolition of the old Carnegie Institution building at 115 W. University Parkway,” the notice said. “Construction fencing will be installed first, with interior work beginning next week. Demolition of the exterior… is anticipated to begin in February, and the project is expected to be completed by June.”

Although interior demolition started more than a month ago, the work has become more noticeable to passersby as parts of the building’s exterior are removed, especially on the side facing University Parkway. Whiting Turner is the contractor. It is one of the last projects to get underway at Homewood before Hopkins put a hold on construction activity as a cost saving measure in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The work is consistent with a 2008 campus plan that identified the Carnegie parcel as one of several “growth opportunities” that could give Hopkins “capacity to address future program needs.” The plan recommended that the Carnegie building be razed and replaced with a “new building, likely for centers and institutes” rather than housing or recreational uses.

An accompanying rendering showed a six-story brick building roughly where the Carnegie building stands. The planners, Ayers Saint Gross, also called for demolition of the adjacent former U.S. Lacrosse headquarters at 113 W. University Parkway, to make way for new development.

Karen Lancaster, assistant vice president for external relations for Hopkins, said in an email message that the university does not have specific plans for the Carnegie parcel once the demolition is complete. “There is no near term new project designated for the site,” she wrote.

Lancaster did not answer a question about why the university began tearing the building down this year. According to a 2016 article in The Johns Hopkins News-Letter, Hopkins leaders needed to wait to raze the building until they had sufficient funds.

Last week, Hopkins president Ronald Daniels announced the university is suspending most capital projects over $100,000 through fiscal 2021, and that “active projects would be subject to review. The work so far has made the building unsuitable for occupancy and vulnerable to break-ins and vandalism.

Technically, the city of Baltimore has not issued a permit for the demolition work. According to Tammy Hawley, chief of strategic communications for the housing department, Hopkins and its contractor applied for two permits related to the property, one to cap off water and sewer service and one to demolish the structure. The request to cap off utilities was approved, but a demolition permit has not been issued as of April 29, according to city planners.

The Carnegie Institution Embryology Building, called “Old Carnegie” by some, is one of two modernist structures on the Homewood campus that Hopkins has targeted for demolition in recent years. In March 2019, Daniels announced that a new student center would be constructed in place of the Mattin Center, a three-building, $17 million arts center that opened in 2001.

“Old Carnegie” represented a significant a change to the Homewood campus when it opened, as Mattin did in 2001. From 1960 to 2005, it housed the department of embryology, the branch of biology and medicine that’s concerned with the study of embryos and their development

Before 1960, Hopkins’ embryology department was on its East Baltimore medical campus. Launched in 1913, it was one of six departments within the Carnegie Institution of Washington, founded in 1902 by industrialist Andrew Carnegie.

The embryology department moved in part to be closer to Hopkins’ biology department. Since it moved, “staff have uncovered the role played by genes during embryogenesis, developed widely used experimental methodologies, trained several scientific generations of biologists while they worked in the labs as postdoctoral fellows, and shared with [the biology department] a graduate program and many intellectual ties,” says the Carnegie Science website.

According to the 2016 News-Letter article , the building has been the setting for cutting-edge research by faculty members such as Allan Spradling, former director of the embryology department, and Andrew Fire, who, along with Craig Mello, won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for work leading to the discovery of RNA interference.

Joseph Gall, who was then a staff scientist in the embryology department and adjunct professor in the biology department, won the prestigious Lasker Award in 2006 for his role as a “founder of modern cell biology.”

With a brick and concrete exterior devoid of ornamentation, the building represented a break from the traditional style of buildings elsewhere on campus. It was designed by Anderson, Beckwith and Haible of Massachusetts and constructed at a time when Hopkins, like many universities, was starting to add modernist buildings, including Levering Hall and the Milton S. Eisenhower Library.

In contrast with the department’s previous East Baltimore location, also known as the Carnegie Building, the structure on W. University Parkway was designed as a new sort of research and teaching facility, set in nature rather than part of an urban hospital. Its state-of-the-art labs were later copied in many other bio-science buildings around the country.

Architecturally, it came across as strong and solid, long and linear, an orderly place for rigorous research. At the same time, it was more of a soldier than a hero. “It blends with its wooded surroundings,” John Dorsey and James Dilts noted in “A Guide to Baltimore Architecture.”

In 2005, seeking to stay at the cutting edge of science, the embryology department moved to a new Carnegie Institution building at 3520 San Martin Drive, designed by ZGF Architects and also set in nature.

After the move, Hopkins used Old Carnegie in a variety of ways but never made it the home for another academic department. By 2016, part of it was turned over to the university’s Office of Recycling, which used the space to operate a trash compactor and store recycling and composting bins, and the rest was boarded up.

“Since the 2005 handover, the University has let the building decay,” News-Letter reporter Will Anderson wrote in 2016. “Old Carnegie was repeatedly broken into. Windows were smashed and graffiti sprayed on the walls.”

Anderson noted that Hopkins administrators had decided by then to raze the building rather than spend money to retrofit it for new uses.

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Ed Gunts

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

One reply on “Johns Hopkins is tearing down ‘Old Carnegie,’ training ground for generations of biologists”

  1. Thanks for this. Anything that’s not in the overblown, oddly proportioned Homewood Colonial Revival seems to stick in the Blue Jay’s craw.

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