Baltimore has so many hidden streets and lanes, it is no surprise that a place called Crittenton Place stumped the members of the Baltimore City Planning Commission. For the better part of two hours Thursday, I listened to an urban saga about a piece of property and its aged stone buildings that tell an amazing history.
It's a story that is not often told, and you need a degree in advanced urban geography to find the the street and the charity that flourished here.
Setting the tone for the neighbors who mounted a defense for the old Florence Crittenton Home was Mark Thistle, who lives near the old stone house built on the side of the Jones Falls Valley in Hampden.
"This is the most intact urban mill village in America," he testified before the planning panel. "You will not find another one unadulterated like it."
This statement set the stage for one of Baltimore's newly simmering preservation controversies, this one balancing the interests of Hamilton Bank versus Hampden residents who want to bring some respect to an attractive tract topped by a complex of old stone buildings.
I heard the story of a wealthy 19th-century mill owner who built his industrial village here and employed hundreds of workers in the 1870s. He lived in a mighty stone house, circa 1845, on the side of the hill, and they lived in lesser homes all around him.
He died in 1881, and what happened to the house during the next four decades is a little hazy. In 1925, it was sold to a national charity formed during the Victorian era to tend to unwed mothers. The house was expanded with a fine stone addition so the women could live in a dormitory-like setting. Located in a secluded hilltop nook off main streets, the charity and its work would go on for the next eight decades, little noticed except by those with direct knowledge of it.
I learned from Lauren Schiszik, a planner for the city's Division of Historical and Architectural Preservation, that Baltimore's Crittenton Home was one of dozens located throughout the country.
"Charles Crittenton was the wealthy owner of a wholesale drug company in New York City in the late 19th century," Schiszik said in her written account presented at the landmark planning hearing. "The death of his four-year-old daughter, Florence, of scarlet fever ... led him to change his life. He became an evangelist and established the first Mission in 1883 in New York City to offer prostitutes or girls 'leading lives of shame' a place to reform themselves."
She said he gave his organization his daughter's name. "By the time of his death in 1909, he had helped establish 76 homes in the U.S., China, Japan, and France, and left millions of dollars to the National Florence Crittenton Mission," she said in her testimony before the Planning Commission.
Baltimore's first Crittenton Home was created in 1895 in what is now Little Italy. It later moved to Hollins Street and in 1925 found its way to the Hampden hillside. Social needs changed, and the home closed in 2010, although neighbors said at the hearing that college students are living in its former dorms.
The local charity's real estate assets here of 2.5 acres came to be owned by Hamilton Bank, whose officers want to sell the land. The former Crittenton site is under contract to be sold to a developer, but once word of the potential land change spread through the neighborhood, a hue and cry erupted.
The controversy is relatively new, and there are complicating issues. The tract is bound by a Maryland Historic Trust easement, but community leaders, including City Council member Mary Pat Clarke, said that overnight change could happen without benefit of hearings and open meetings.
George Peters, who lives a block away on Chestnut Avenue and chairs the Hampden Community Council Zoning Committee, said, "Everybody wants to build on every square inch of this neighborhood. The site has the potential to do something big there. Ideally, its best use would be some repurposing of the current buildings. Not pursuing that would be a mistake."