Prominent Architects See Potential for Museum, Cultural Center in Shuttered Baltimore Jail

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Baltimore City Men's Jail (via Creative Commons)
Baltimore City Men’s Jail (via Creative Commons)

If it’s not torn down, the massive Baltimore City Jail complex could find new life as a cultural center and museum. That was the conclusion of two nationally prominent architects who toured the facility yesterday and discussed their reactions in a presentation to more than 400 people last night.
The architects, Thom Mayne of Morphosis and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of Duany Plater-Zyberk and Company, toured the jail along with a prospective investor from Poland, architects, preservationists, a developer’s representative and city and state officials.

They told the audience that they thought converting the jail, rather than demolishing it, could result in a one of a kind cultural and economic development powerhouse that could help connect Mount Vernon, East Baltimore and the city’s waterfront.

Mayne said he has never been inside a jail or prison before and initially thought the idea of a conversion sounded far fetched. But after touring the building, he said, he believes it has enormous potential to draw visitors and help rejuvenate the surrounding area.

“It would take outrageous optimism to do this,” he said. “It would need an incredible amount of believing. It would be an amazing statement for the city.”

Mayne said the jail has the same scale as London’s Tate museum, and the Jones Falls Expressway leads right to it.

“You could clean it out. It could be beautiful,” Mayne said. “It would be so audacious that you could absolutely pull it off…You could fill it with galleries like the Tate. It would be mind boggling.”

Plater-Zyberk said she spoke to some of the women who worked in the jail and got a sense of its history.

“I think we all came away thinking about the suffering that place represents” and the need for it somehow to be “memorialized” in any adaptive reuse, she said.

At the same time, “I came away thinking that the jail building somehow has a future,” she said. “It reminds me of the Power Plant on the Thames in London. There’s a bicycle path running by the jail. There’s a creek flowing under there. There is potential beauty…”

The jail complex is “an incredible resource so close to downtown,” she continued. “There are numerous things it could give impetus to. There are acres and acres of land that could be returned to the residents of the city. “

photo by Jillian Storms
photo by Jillian Storms

The talk, at Lovely Lane United Methodist Church, was billed as a panel discussion on “Baltimore’s Future Growth & Development.”

It was organized by Kelly Cross, president of Old Goucher Community Association since 2013 and a candidate for the 12th District City Council seat being vacated by Carl Stokes, who is running for mayor. The jail is in the 12th District.

The discussion drew a near-capacity audience consisting largely of design professionals, educators and invited dignitaries, including the First Lady of Maryland, artist Yumi Hogan. Dozens of students came from the design schools at Morgan State University, the University of Maryland and Maryland Institute College of Art.

The talk came at the end of a whirlwind tour of the city on Thursday by Cross, the two architects and a VIP investor from Poland who had flown in, at Cross’s invitation, to look at economic development opportunities in Baltimore.

Thom Mayne surrounded by students (photo: Jillian Storms)
Thom Mayne surrounded by students (photo: Jillian Storms)

Mounting a Campaign

Gov. Larry Hogan shut down the Baltimore City Men’s Jail during his first year in office and subsequently disclosed plans to raze much of it.

His actions have caused a backlash from preservationists who say parts of the jail are historically and architecturally significant as one of the oldest jails in the United States and should not be torn down.

They note that the stone gatehouse at 401 East Madison Street has been designated a city landmark and other parts of it are on the state inventory of historic buildings maintained by the Maryland Historical Trust.

Yesterday’s tour is a sign that career preservationists aren’t the only people who are beginning to question the idea of tearing down the jail if it can be recycled instead.

Cross, 37, has made finding a “creative” use for the historic city jail property one of his top priorities if he is elected to the City Council. It was the first goal he mentioned during a candidate’s forum in Mount Vernon on Tuesday.

Cross and his husband, Mateusz Rozanski, a native of Poland, invited the prospective investor from Poland to visit Baltimore and explore possibilities for several areas of the 12th District, including the jail, the Fallsway, and Oldtown.

The investor from Poland is named Grazyna Kulczyk, and she is the wife of Polish entrepreneur Jan Kulczyk. She was in the audience at Lovely Lane but did not address the gathering.

According to people on the tour yesterday, she was responsible for converting the former Hugger Brewery in Poznan to the Stary Browar (Old Brewery) Shopping, Art and Business Center, a $66 million cultural center that is a combination of a shopping mall and an art gallery, with art exhibition spaces blended with cafes and shops for clothing, jewelry and other retail goods. It was acquired in December 1998 by Fortis, a company owned by Grazyna Kulczyk. She transformed it into the cultural and shopping center it is today.

Kulczyk also maintains a residence in Miami and is active in the international art scene there, including the annual Art Basel Festival. Plater-Zyberk also lives in southern Florida and is the former dean of the architecture school at the University of Miami.

According to marketing materials, the Stary Browar Shopping, Art and Business Center is housed within the walls of the former Hugger Brewery, which dates back to 1844. The facility is popular with Poznan residents as a venue for shopping, entertainment and socializing, with about 28,000 visitors a day. It also has become one of the city’s tourist attractions.

“To be in Poznań and see the Old Town but not see Stary Browar is like learning about the past but failing to see the present and the future,” says one local writer.

According to press materials about the Stary Browar, the brewery closed in 1980 and its buildings subsequently deteriorated. It was acquired in December 1998 by Fortis, a company owned by Grażyna Kulczyk, the wife of Poland’s richest entrepreneur, Jan Kulczyk. She transformed the premises into the cultural and shopping center it is today.

Another prospective investor, participants say, is Miami art collector Mera Rubell, whose Rubell Family Collection is one of the biggest private contemporary art collections in North America. She is part of the group that owns the Lord Baltimore hotel, which served as the base of operations for yesterday’s visitors. She was scheduled to be part of the tour yesterday but was unable to come to Baltimore at the last minute, participants said.

A third potential investor is New Jersey-based Edison Properties, which owns much of the land just south of the jail, now used for surface parking.

Edison has commissioned its own studies about the benefits of redeveloping the parking lots and tearing down the elevated portion of Interstate 83 south of Guilford Avenue to create an at-grade boulevard and uncover the Jones Falls waterway hidden underneath the highway. Edison was represented by real estate consultant Al Barry.

Others present at the jail tour included Johns Hopkins, head of the Baltimore Heritage preservation advocacy group; and Tom Liebel, chairman of Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (Photo: Jillian Storms)
Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (Photo: Jillian Storms)

‘Just a concept’

Earlier this month, Liebel suggested that the city’s preservation commission consider recommending that more of the jail complex receive landmark designation to protect it from demolition. He noted that the Maryland Historical Trust has some authority to block demolition if it chooses to exercise that authority. Last night he suggested that the 1898 cell block may be a candidate for landmark protection.

Cross said he and Rozanski invited the Polish investor to visit Baltimore because they know how successful her project in Poland is and thought something comparable could be created in Baltimore.

Cross said he asked Mayne and Plater-Zyberk to tour East Baltimore at the same time because he is a fan of their work and wanted their perspective. He said he organized the panel discussion so they could share their views with the public.

Cross, who moderated the panel discussion, said he feels strongly that jail facilities shouldn’t be concentrated in one part of the city, as they have been for more than 150 years. “We need to start dispersing stuff out of the city,” he said.

When Hogan announced plans to close the jail, he said, he saw that decision as an opportunity to explore other uses for the property between Mount Vernon and East Baltimore and thought of the project in Poland.

Cross said there is no specific plan for the cultural center and no budget. At this point, he said, “it’s just a concept.”

He and Rozanski said the idea is to turn the jail and its exercise courtyard into a multi faceted destination that could include a museum of contemporary art, bookstores, a café, performing space and additional retail space.

What makes the arts and shopping center in Poland such a success, they said, is the way the art spaces are integrated with commercial spaces that draw a mix of people and help generate revenue for the property. “It’s a place where art is integrated with other things,” Rozanski said.

In their remarks, both architects compared Baltimore’s jail complex to a variety of other large, brooding buildings around the world that have been put to other uses or proposed for conversion, from the Old Brewery in Poland to the sprawling Mana Contemporary art center in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Both architects said they would like to work on a conversion of the Baltimore jail, if the project moves ahead.

Cross said he knows a lot of people would need to approve of any conversion before it could move ahead, but he feels it is important to start a discussion.

One member of the audience, architect Ed Goldberg, asked where funding for such a conversion would come from. “There is no money,” he said.

Mayne said this is the sort of project that could find funding once a vision is formulated and shared.

“If you have the proper design,” he said, “everything follows.”

Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts

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


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6 COMMENTS

  1. I would interested in the footprint for the project considering the other facilities in proximity including the intake facility, the Homeless complex, the BCCC, the Diagnostic Center, Latrobe Homes, OldTown Mall. And other properties along Madison and Monument Streets.

  2. Excuse me? Converting the jail and its exercise courtyard into “a multi-faceted destination” that could include “a museum of contemporary art, bookstores, a café, performing space and additional retail space”??? Is this an elite designer’s answer for everything? Instead of attempting to create another “entertainment/cultural powerhouse” in this city, how about it becomes the “rock” of the community and developing the building into a training center for job skills and financial literacy, helping those being released from prison find a proactive way to earn a living and support themselves and reintegrate back into society. That is more the type of “economic development” that is needed = people development.

  3. A Four Seasons Hotel in Istanbul is located inside of an old jail. Very impressive! Would be a shame to tear ours down–and a huge expense!

  4. I’m all for it- it’s time to reclaim this gem of a building in the heart of the city and make it work for Baltimore.

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