Jacques Kelly: At former A. Hoen & Co. lithography plant, 'audacious' hope for East Baltimore

A bold project is kicking off next week in the heart of an old and battered East Baltimore neighborhood.

Transformation of the long abandoned A. Hoen and Sons lithography plant, at Biddle and Chester streets, has been an elusive goal, but now a number of players have come together to tackle and tame this daunting historic industrial complex.

“It’s a groundbreaking, not a ribbon cutting,” said Karen Stokes, chief executive officer of Strong City Baltimore, the nonprofit that has stepped up to lead this task. Cross Street Partners and City Life Historic Properties are business partners for a massive renovation.

Strong City, which began in 1969 as the Greater Homewood Community Corp., is expanding its own vision and mission as a tenant of this 85,000-square-foot complex. The organization will occupy a portion of the finished product.

“We are looking forward to moving into a completed building next spring,” Stokes said.

There is plenty of room for other nonprofits as well, she said. There will also be event space and retail or restaurant space.

At one point the Hoen lithography works — known for its expertise in producing works of vibrant color — turned out Topps baseball cards, National Geographic maps, Buffalo Bill Cody posters and the line of Dr. Seuss books. It closed in 1981 after 141 years in the printing business.

The new facility will be called the Center for Neighborhood Innovation, and Strong City hope the walls of this old printing firm become a “new model for neighborhood transformation.” It will join other recent developments — the American Brewery on Gay Street and the Southern Baptist Church and Israel Baptist, as well as the Hopkins development initiative in Eager Park.

“It’s an audacious project for us,” Stokes said. “We needed to move and we never owned anything.”

Part of being audacious is the $26 million estimated cost for reclaiming a block-long complex of brick and timber warehouse and loft structures.

“The state of Maryland’s support has been critical to moving this project forward,” said Stokes, who also noted that the city assisted in environmental remediation issues.

She added that “significant masonry work had to be done this past summer,” and said federal and state Historic Tax Credits and Federal New Market Tax Credits will help with the financing.

Hoen printing relocated there after a fire in 1901 destroyed its old plant near City Hall at Guilford Avenue and Lexington Street.

When the plant moved to Biddle Street, it brought part of its history along. An article in The Baltimore Sun noted that masonry workers used a scaffold of timbers, chains and cables to remove a two-ton carved stone panel from the older downtown building. It was then moved to the new plant and installed on the Biddle Street wall.

A Latin inscription declares, “The Stones Speak,” a reference to the heavy lithographic stones used in color printing at that time.

Perhaps they will speak again. Bill Struever, chief of Cross Street Partners, said the time is right to make an impact in this neighborhood.

“I’ve been in Baltimore for 44 years,” he said. “The change and the impact has mostly been in white neighborhoods — the Federal Hills and the Cantons. In the black neighborhoods, profound issues remain. I feel excited and engaged by the role we can play here in East Baltimore.”

He describes the Biddle Street location as being “north of the tracks,” a reference to the elevated Amtrak and MARC right-of-way that winds through East Baltimore before entering a tunnel at Bond Street.

“We are working with Amtrak to transform the 10 street underpasses under the tracks,” Struever said. “With $50,000 in LED lighting we could make them a gorgeous gateway.”

He has an eye for that kind of visual impact. Struever mentioned the Mr. Boh sign atop another local landmark, the National Bohemian Brewery on Dillion Street, and noted that there’s an old brick sprinkler tank tower at Hoen.

He imagines that a new sign there “could be an incredible greeting as you arrive in Baltimore.”

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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