They’re the ultimate fixer-uppers. They have no electricity or running water. Even worse, there’s no off-street parking and no roof decks with harbor views. And they’re more than 200 years old.
Last weekend, a Who’s Who of local preservationists gathered in Fells Point to figure out how to preserve and maintain two of the last surviving wooden houses in the city, buildings with strong ties to African-American labor history in Baltimore.
“Though very small, they have a lot of history,” said architect David Gleason, one of the preservationists working to save the houses. If preserved, “this will help complete the story of the growth and development of the neighborhood.”
But time is running out because the houses are in such a deteriorated state, Gleason warned. “This is probably the last chance to look at these houses because they’re so fragile,” he said. Without a comprehensive renovation, “they probably won’t be around much longer.”
The wooden houses are located at 612 and 614 South Wolfe Street, just blocks from the Fells Point waterfront. Each is 12 feet wide and 15 feet deep. They have one room on the first floor and a half-story loft above. There are no basements, but they have backyards.
These are the last of five wooden houses that once lined the west side of Wolfe Street on that block. They date from 1797, the same year that Baltimore was officially incorporated as a municipality. They were completed at the same time that the USS Constellation, now the sculptural centerpiece of the Inner Harbor, was being built nearby.
These are not the oldest houses in Baltimore. The Robert Long House, a brick structure at 812 S. Ann Street, dates from 1765. But the wooden houses are among the oldest surviving houses in the city, and they are one of only eight remaining wooden houses in Fells Point. Today, they houses are vacant and uninhabitable. Dilapidated is too kind a term. Their shingle roofs are slumping and one of the dormer windows is leaning to one side. Inside, the floors are exposed down to the dirt, and side walls are missing.
But the history remains. They were built to provide workers’ housing for ship carpenters and caulkers and others working on the Fells Point waterfront. Records show that as early as 1841, they were occupied by African-Americans, either freed slaves or ones who had purchased their own freedom. The houses were most likely rented out rather than owned by their occupants.
According to Johns Hopkins, director of the Baltimore Heritage preservation advocacy group, the houses are significant because they were on a main street in the city and occupied by “coloreds” as early as the 1840s. “These houses represented steps to independence” for African-Americans living during that era, he said.
Baltimore Heritage has had the houses on its “watch list” of endangered buildings since 1996, he added.
Eric Holcomb, executive director of Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), said before the meeting that the Wolfe Street houses are significant beyond Baltimore because of their age and use. He said the houses were never meant to last as long as they have and it is a fluke that they have survived when so many other buildings have been lost. Now that they have lasted for so long, he said, they are valuable remnants of a bygone era and deserve to be saved.
“These are among the most important houses on the East Coast,” agreed CHAP member Matthew Mosca.
In the 1900s, the houses were acquired by the Dashiell family. They were dubbed the Two Sisters after their owners, Eleanor Dashiell (1906-1985) and Mary Leeke Dashiell (1910-1993.) By the 1990s, they were in poor condition. In 2008, the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell’s Point, a nonprofit known as the Preservation Society for short, acquired them from the Dashiell family to keep them out of the hands of private investors who might want to tear them down and build something else on the land. The idea was for the nonprofit to protect them and find a way to preserve them for future generations.
The preservation society is “probably the most sympathetic owner you can get,” Hopkins said.
The preservation group succeeded in keeping the houses away from private developers. It secured grants and invested $100,000 to $150,000 over the years to stabilize the houses. But it hasn’t been able to carry out the comprehensive rehabilitation work that is needed so they will have a use that will allow them to survive for another century.
That was the purpose of Saturday’s meeting. More than two dozen people gathered at the Preservation Society’s Fells Point visitor center on Thames Street to learn about the condition of the houses and what’s needed to fix them up. Then they walked over to the houses to see for themselves.
Participants included representatives from Baltimore’s preservation commission and Department of General Services; Baltimore Heritage; Preservation Maryland; the state of Maryland; Morgan State University; the American Institute of Architects; the Fells Point community and private preservation contractors such as Worcester Eisenbrandt. The discussion was led by Hopkins; Gleason, a board member of the Preservation Society; architect and society board member Peter Pearre and Bryan Blundell, a preservation contractor who has worked for years to save the houses and has created a video about them.
Gleason said the preservation society is “stretched a little too thin” at present and not in a position to take on an ambitious construction project by itself. He said it is open to the idea of joining with another group or turning the buildings over to another group that is in a better position to preserve them. He said the goal of the meeting was to develop a constituency for the houses and come up with a preservation strategy.
“A lot of people don’t even know they exist,” he said. And looking at them, “they don’t realize they represent so many layers of history…We’re looking for suggestions and ideas that will help save them.”
Several of the preservationists suggested that a “Friends” group or committee be formed to save them, just as some local parks have conservancies.
Dale Glenwood Green, an assistant architecture professor at Morgan, noted that the state’s African American Heritage Preservation Grant Program provides money to fix up historic properties on an emergency basis if someone applies for it. Holcomb said he believes the condition of the houses qualifies as an emergency.
The preservationists agreed that the houses are so significant historically that they need to be open to the public in some capacity, rather than privatized as single-family residences. But one problem with a public use, they said, is that the houses are so small that not many people can gather inside them at one time.
The consensus was that the houses should be used as an interpretive center or educational facility of some sort. Only, “don’t call it a museum,” said Romaine Somerville, former head of the preservation society.
But if the houses become an interpretive center of some sort, what would they interpret?
Here is a summary of ideas that came out of an on-the-spot brainstorming session:
- Take advantage of the ‘tiny house’ movement around the country and make this a place to learn about tiny houses.
- Make them a place to teach young adults about rehabbing old buildings.
- “Tie into the affordable housing conversation” locally and create a place to learn about low cost housing. Make a showplace for the city’s Vacants to Value program.
- Join forces with Civic Works, the Living Classrooms Foundation, the Parks and People Foundation or other successful non profits and make it a satellite location for their work.
- Learn from history and make it a place to teach young people how to caulk ships or otherwise repair maritime vessels, possibly related to the city’s soon-to-be expanded water taxi system.
- Have an archeological dig to call attention to the property’s history.
- Don’t have an archeological dig if it will disturb underground utilities and cost a lot of money.
- Use social media to spread the word about the houses.
Blundell offered the most detailed vision for preserving the buildings. He has developed conceptual plans for turning the ground floor into a series of spaces, including a “living history and museum space, “ a “materials laboratory,” a “demonstration space” and one area designated as a “conserved architectural artifact,” showing the building in its close-to-original state.
The preservationists said a sign or plaque should be mounted on the houses to tell passersby about their history. There are some drawings in one window. One of the problems with the houses, observers said, is that they look like they are uncared for and awaiting demolition, and they don’t contribute to the area in their present condition.
Blundell said the houses are in such a precarious state that they shouldn’t be a training site for unskilled workers. He said whoever works on the buildings should be the best in their respective fields.
Blundell also said any rehabilitation plan should not only have an approach to fixing up the buildings but also a strategy for operating and maintaining them over time. He estimated the total cost could be as much as $500,000.
During the tour, some young adults from the neighborhood saw that the houses were open and asked to go in and look around. (The houses had been open the previous weekend for the Doors Open Baltimore event and drew 70 visitors.)
At least two visitors indicated they were looking to buy a house. The Preservation Society probably could have sold both houses on the spot if members simply wanted to part with them.
The three-hour meeting ended after the tour. People left their contact information for follow-up meetings and traded business cards. Holcomb and others talked about applying for emergency repair funds.
For anyone who wants to get involved, the numbers to call to offer help or money are: The Preservation Society at 410-675-6750, the city’s preservation commission at 410-396-4866, or Baltimore Heritage at 410-332-9992.
Gleason said he was encouraged by the turnout and suggestions.
“I think this is the beginning of a long-term discussion,” he said. “Everyone had some really good comments. We don’t want this to die.”
“I look at this as the last great preservation/conservation project in Fells Point,” he added. “It goes back to the origins of Fells Point. It reflects the whole history of the city.”
McKeldin Fountain demolition begins
Contractors have begun demolishing a symbol of Baltimore’s renaissance and the mayor who sparked it, the McKeldin Fountain at Pratt and Light streets.
The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore has led the effort to tear down the fountain, named after former Mayor Theodore McKeldin, and replace it with a landscaped plaza that members argue would be a more welcoming gateway to the city.
Two pedestrian skybridges that were connected to the fountain were taken down more than a month ago. On Saturday, crews with a spike-wielding excavator began chipping away at the concrete piers along the northern edge of the plaza. By the end of the day, the 1982 fountain appeared to be past the point of saving. Demolition activity is expected to continue through the month of November.
Exelon tower grand opening
Developers and city officials have scheduled a grand opening ceremony for the office portion of the $160 million, 21-story Exelon Tower at Harbor Point on November 4. Nearly 1,500 Exelon employees are expected to move in from two other locations in Baltimore.
Liberty Harbor East development breaks ground
The Harbor East Management Group and the Bozzuto Group held a groundbreaking ceremony last week for Liberty Harbor East, a $170 million, 22-story development that will contain apartments, condominiums and a new Whole Foods Market. The event took place two weeks after the death of Harbor East founder John Paterakis, Sr. Hickok Cole is the project architect.
Under Armour’s first completed project at Port Covington wins two design awards
Under Armour’s first completed project at Port Covington has won two design awards. The project is Building 37, the company’s conversion of a former Sam’s Club big box store to a two-level work space for Under Armour employees. (37 was the number on company founder Kevin Plank’s football jersey at the University of Maryland.)
The project’s Pennsylvania-based architects, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, won an Honor Award in Interior Architecture on October 27 from the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and on Oct. 19 they won a Merit Award from the Philadelphia chapter of the AIA.
The project has drawn praise for demonstrating how “dead” chain stores can be recycled for new uses. “A prime example of the many opportunities and benefits that can be found in repurposing vacant big box retail spaces,” the Pittsburgh design awards jury said.
MOM’s opening in White Marsh on November 11
MOM’s Organic Market has set Nov. 11, 12 and 13 as dates for the grand opening of its new store at 5267 Campbell Boulevard in White Marsh. Part of the Nottingham Commons shopping center, it will be the company’s ninth store in Maryland and fourth in the Baltimore area.
Architect Mark Herbkersman moves on
Longtime Baltimore architect Mark Herbkersman has left BCT Architects of Baltimore after nearly 10 years to become design and managing director of the new Washington, D. C., office of Massa Multimedia Architecture, which has its headquarters in New Jersey.
Marcia the Friendly Ghost
MedChi, the Maryland State Medical Society at 1211 Cathedral Street, has a friendly ghost. Phones ring, keyboards click and lights flicker, but no one is there.
Employees say it is Marcia Crocker Noyes, MedChi’s librarian for 50 years. Three experts will discuss her life and afterlife during a lecture entitled “Marcia, the Friendly Ghost,” on Wednesday, November 2 (All Soul’s Day) at the society’s Osler Hall, starting at 6:30 p.m. The talk is free for MedChi members and $5 for non members.
Ed Gunts writes Urban Landscape, a weekly roundup of design and development news that appears on Mondays.