The Odell’s building on North Avenue has been restored and converted into an arts and technology hub. Photo by Ed Gunts.
The Odell’s building on North Avenue has been restored and converted into an arts and technology hub. Photo by Ed Gunts.

When they move into a new or restored building, occupants typically have a ribbon cutting ceremony to mark the end of construction.

But when two non-profits took control of the restored Odell’s Building this month after a $6.6 million conversion to an arts and technology hub, they didn’t cut a ribbon. They danced.

For much of its history, the building at 21 East North Avenue was home to Odell’s nightclub, the place with the slogan: “You’ll know if you belong.” Since much of the interior had been a dance floor, the new tenants reasoned, it only made sense to start a new chapter by dancing.

So shortly after 8 p.m. last Friday, Jacqueline Brock, the widow of nightclub founder Odell Brock Jr., and other members of the Brock family held an impromptu reunion on a raised stage inside the Odell’s building and started dancing, just like the old days. The first song was “I Want to Thank You” from 1981, by Alicia Myers. Afterwards, they led a sort of Conga line all around the first floor, with many of the building’s new tenants joining in.

“I can’t think of a better tribute to him for you all to have done this,” Jacqueline Brock told the building’s new occupants.

The event actually marked two developments: First, it was the end of major construction and a ceremonial blessing of the building. In addition to the dancing, Mama Rashida Forman-Bey and Mama Kay Lawal-Muhammad of WombWork Productions led a “Libation Ceremony and Land Acknowledgement” to recognize ancestral contributions and honor the ground on which the building stands and the cultural significance of Odell’s.

Second, it was the announcement of a new name for one of the tenants moving in. The two nonprofits that will be based in the building are Arts for Learning Maryland and Code in the Schools.

Started in 2013, Code in the Schools works to expand computer science education in the classroom. Headed by CEO Gretchen LeGrand, it has outgrown its space in The Centre at 10 E. North Avenue and wanted to expand while staying close to the Baltimore City Public Schools headquarters nearby. It will be based on the second floor of the Odell’s building.

Arts for Learning Maryland is the new name of Young Audiences of Maryland, a 71-year-old organization that works to transform student learning through arts integration. It will occupy the first floor and basement. Both groups will share a second-floor classroom and a covered outdoor space accessible from the second level, bringing the building to full occupancy.

The two tenants made it financially possible for developers to restore the building, which had been vacant since 1992. The renovation was led by a joint venture of Jubilee Baltimore, headed by Charles Duff, and Property Consulting Inc., headed by Samuel Polakoff.

After purchasing the building in 2017 for $400,000, the developers broke ground for the arts and technology hub in March and they’re aiming to have both organizations in their new homes by the first of the year. It’s the latest step in the revitalization of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, along with renovations of the Parkway Theater, North Avenue Market and the restoration and expansion plans for Penn Station.

The Brock family and other supporters of Odell’s — both the historic and restored versions of the building — celebrate with dancing on Nov. 19. Photo by Ed Gunts.
The Brock family and other supporters of Odell’s — both the historic and restored versions of the building — celebrate with dancing on Nov. 19. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Arts for Learning Maryland, which has about 12,000 square of space, is farther along with its move-in. The layout includes offices, training space for artists and teachers, and classroom space for students and families.

As of last week, Code in the Schools was still waiting for work to be complete on an elevator needed to provide barrier-free access to the second level – something the building didn’t have when Odell’s was open.

Although a formal building dedication will come later, Friday’s event was held to give staffers and supporters of the two groups a “first look” at the progress made so far and learn about the organizations and the building they’ll occupy.

Stacie Sanders Evans, president and CEO of Arts for Learning Maryland, explained that her organization changed its name because leaders wanted a name that better reflected its evolution over the years and what it does today.

The organization began in 1950 as a classical music series in which students listened to music. It has evolved into a statewide organization where educators partner with musicians, actors, poets, visual artists and dancers to co-create “dynamic, arts-integrated curriculum-based learning experiences.” Today, Arts for Learning Maryland reaches more than 180,000 students a year in every Maryland school district with artist residences, performances, and professional development experiences for educators.

“The name Young Audiences served us well for 70 years, but our work is not passive,” she said. “Our students are no longer audience members. They are creators. They are performers. They are collaborators. And we needed a name to reflect this evolution.”

The name Arts for Learning Maryland was selected after a two-year process involving board members, staff, artists, educators, students, donors and others. The goal was to select a name that reflected the non profit’s belief that the arts transform lives, and that integrating the arts with academic learning produces powerful results.

“We believe that the arts are for learning,” Evans said. “The words ‘Arts for Learning’ are the right words and the right message for who we are and the exciting journey we’re on. And by adopting Arts for Learning Maryland, which was part of our previous name, we’re honoring our history and affiliation with National Young Audiences/Arts for Learning, the nation’s oldest and largest arts-in-education learning network.”

Although the name has changed, Evans said, “our mission and impact remain the same: We believe unwaveringly that by connecting educators, professional artists and communities, we can transform the lives and education of our youth.”

Evans said it’s fitting that Odell’s, known as a place for dancing and creativity, will continue to be associated with the arts.

Arts for Learning was drawn to make Odell’s its home, in part, because Odell’s was a gathering place that was so beloved by so many creative people in the community, she said. “We are so happy to be in a space that clearly meant so much to so many people, and we’re happy that Arts for Learning has the privilege and the responsibility of honoring what has come before us.”

Opening the windows

The 18,000-square-foot building opened in 1909 as a social hall and later housed a car dealership. In 1940, it found new life as a nightclub. From 1976 to 1984, Brock operated his nightclub there, making it a destination for people from all over Baltimore and beyond.

Celebrities who visited while they were in town included Patti Labelle, Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali. After his death in 1985, it continued as a club until 1992. Since then it has been dormant.

Quinn Evans was the architect for the exterior changes and the space occupied by Code in the Schools. Ziger Snead was the architect for the space occupied by Arts for Learning Maryland. Southway Builders was the general contractor.

Part of the transformation involved changes to the building’s Tudor Revival-style exterior. The contractors uncovered windows that had been boarded up for years and gave the exterior a new two-tone paint treatment that accentuates its ‘half timber’ design.

Opening the windows on three sides helped make the building much more attractive as a place to work, said architect Ann Powell, a principal with Ziger Snead. In the daytime, “this building has amazing natural light,” she said.

Although the term ‘half timber design’ implies the use of wood, the Odell’s building is one of the few structures in the city in which exterior elements that resemble wood beams actually were made of concrete, Duff noted.

One wall of the Arts for Learning Maryland space in the restored Odell’s building honors the history of Odell’s with donated photos, posters, clothing, and other artifacts and memorabilia. Photo by Ed Gunts.
One wall of the Arts for Learning Maryland space in the restored Odell’s building honors the history of Odell’s with donated photos, posters, clothing, and other artifacts and memorabilia. Photo by Ed Gunts.

A shrine to Odell’s

Just as the “First Look” event became a reunion of sorts for the Brock family, the interior has become a shrine of sorts to Odell’s. One wall of the Arts for Learning Maryland space contains photos showing what the interior looked like when it was a nightclub, and two disco balls hang above the former dance floor.

The Brock family also donated old posters, clothing, and other historical artifacts and memorabilia. They’re on permanent display on the first floor in an exhibit entitled “You’ll Know If You Belong; A Tribute to Odell’s.”

During the event, Jacqueline Brock shared some of her memories of the club and said what the restoration means to her.

“I call being in Odell’s The Odell Experience,” she said. “You could not explain what it was like. You had to live it. And unless you lived it, I can’t even begin to tell you what it was.”

Brock credits her late husband with the concept.

“My husband had an idea of a place where he wanted people to come, to have a good time, to share fun, to dance until they wanted to drop,” he said. “It was truly a labor of love for him. He created all of this with just a few friends and family, but he did most of the work himself. He spent hours building Odell’s and what he wanted it to represent. It was a space where people could come and love and feel safe. And once they came in, it was just… magical, You had to be there.”

She said her husband figured out a way to stay open past 2 p.m., the closing time established in the city’s liquor laws.

“In Baltimore, you had to close at 2 o’clock,” she said. “So he came up with the idea, he said, well, we’ll just serve punch. So that’s how we were able to stay open until 4, 5 o’clock in the morning. And people were still not ready to go home…The experience created was one of happiness and well-being, and we became known from the East Coast to the West Coast.”

Part of the attraction, she said, was the theme parties Odell Brock thought up.

“We had a lot of theme parties. One time we had a cowboy party. He had big bales of hay that he brought in. One time we had a beach party. He ruined the hardwood floors because he let people come in in bathing suits and he put sand all over and we had to redo the floors after that. We had a night for everyone and so it was: You’ll know if you belong. And I think so many people are trying to do that today.”

Brock said she’s grateful that her husband’s legacy has been recognized.

“He had such a big heart, and everyone loved him,” she said. “I’m extremely emotional about all of this, but I thank you from the bottom of my heart for remembering him.”

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