The Odell’s building in Station North.
The Odell’s building in Station North.

Baltimore had a rare in-person “groundbreaking” yesterday, as nearly 50 people gathered in Station North to mark the start of a $6.6 million renovation of the former Odell’s nightclub, vacant for nearly 30 years.

The Tudor Revival-style building at 19-21 East North Avenue will become an arts and technology hub containing office and classroom space for two non-profits that work with young people, Young Audiences and Code in the Schools, as well as a venue for community events.

The renovated building will allow Young Audiences for the first time in its 70-year history to deliver some of its programs in its own headquarters. It will enable Code in the Schools to accommodate more students in after-school and summer programs and more teachers in professional development workshops.

The project, a joint venture of Jubilee Baltimore and Property Consulting Inc., was hailed yesterday as the next step in the revitalization of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, along with the restorations of the Parkway Theater, the Centre Theatre and the North Avenue Market and expansion plans for Penn Station.

The 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, Odell Brock operated a popular disco there, Odell’s. It continued as a club until 1992 and has been dormant since then.

In remarks at the event, Mayor Brandon Scott alluded to the building’s history and the nightclub’s slogan: “You Know If You Belong,” sometimes repeated as “You’ll Know If You Belong.”

“The tradition was, as my mom would say, as she went there and I didn’t obviously, that ‘You’ll know when you belong.’ That was the saying in Odell’s, and what Young Audiences and Code in the Schools and everybody involved in this project is doing is telling our young people that they belong,” Scott said.

“They belong expressing themselves in art. They belong coding, as I did as a computer programming trade major at Mervo high school, and they belong doing that in their city along North Avenue…We know that North Avenue is rising and that our young people will continue to rise from what many people have talked about as the darkest time in our city.”

Art is a key to unlocking the potential of young people and allowing them to dream, the mayor said.

“We know that the arts are…a vital tool in allowing our young people to imagine and envision a future for themselves and their community,” he said.

“We have to allow our young people to dream about what they want Baltimore to be for them. We can’t dream for them. We can’t impose what their dreams and what they believe the city should be…If you spend time with the young people in Baltimore like I do, you know that there is no shortage of vision. There is no shortage of creativity. There is no shortage of wanting Baltimore to be better. It’s just our job to support them to allow that to come out.”

“From the very beginning, this has been a premier example of a meaningful public-private partnership, one that will transform this long-vacant building into a place of excitement, vitality and energy for the community,” said Charlie Duff, president of Jubilee Baltimore. “We’re proud to have such impactful nonprofit partners joining the project as tenants and look forward to the great work to come out of this space.”

The renovation “preserves an important piece of Baltimore history,” said Sam Polakoff of Property Consulting. “We’re honored to be part of maintaining that tradition and enhancing it for the next generation of Baltimoreans.”

Jubilee Baltimore and Property Consulting Inc. acquired the 18,000-square-foot building in 2017 and have been working since then to find tenants and funding. Quinn Evans is the architect for the building renovation and the space for Code in the Schools. Ziger Snead is the architect for Young Audiences’ space. Southway Builders is the general contractor. Completion is expected by this fall.

Funding includes $800,000 from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation; $400,000 from the Central Baltimore Partnership; $350,000 from the Central Baltimore Future Fund; $200,000 from the Abell Foundation, and $200,000 from the France Merrick Foundation. The developers also received a $1.9 million Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund loan as well as federal historic tax credits, Maryland Historical Trust tax credits and New Markets Tax Credits.

Other speakers included Sonja Santelises, CEO of the Baltimore City Public Schools; Stacie Sanders Evans and Gretchen LeGrand, the leaders of Young Audiences and Code in the Schools;  Ellen Janes, executive director of the Central Baltimore Partnership, and Baltimore City Council member Robert Stokes, who recalled going to Odell’s frequently.

Scott said this was the first in-person groundbreaking he has attended since he took office as mayor in December. “The rest of them have been virtual.” In lieu of a conventional groundbreaking, guests each left a personal “impression” on a block of clay. The pieces will be assembled into a work of art that will be displayed inside the completed building.

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Ed Gunts

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