The construction workers are putting the finishing touches on the sprawling Union Mill, a 19th-century loft building once occupied by a textile company and then, for many years, by a firm that made miniature toys for Baltimore's beloved Christmas gardens.
Located along the banks of the Jones Falls in Hampden, the once-dormant industrial address has been transformed over the last year into a self-contained, $20 million beehive of residences, offices and meeting rooms that also includes a gym and a small restaurant.
Seawall Development Corp. bought Union Mill a year ago from the longtime owner of the toy factory. The circa-1866 Italianate building — declared a Baltimore City landmark in 2008 — was envisioned as a "hub for people who work to make our community a better place," according to the Union Mill website (www.theunionmill.com).
Seawall marketed the apartments to young teachers and others in the educational community, many of them fresh transplants to the area.
In 2009, Seawall opened Miller's Court, a complex at 26th and Howard streets that is also largely occupied by teachers.
"We are taking the mystery out of living in Baltimore," said Seawall's Donald Manekin. He added that the apartment wing of the structure had been fully leased before the first tenants arrived.
The 56 new residences at Union Mill — one- and two-bedroom apartments — filled up over a weekend in early August.
"I was initially skeptical that the building would be ready," said Scott Murphy, a Calvert School teacher from Morristown, N.J., who was among the first to move in. "But I was so impressed by the project — and the concept behind it. I wondered if it could come true, but it sure did."
Meghan Church, who recently received a master's degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, works for the city's New Teachers Project.
"It's a wonderful building," she said. "You live with people on similar schedules. There are a lot of teachers who get up at 5:30 a.m."
Teachers at public and private schools, who work with students from kindergarten through 12th grade, received a $300 discount for one-bedroom units and a $600 discount for two bedrooms. If a spouse, roommate or partner is not a teacher, the discount is lower.
One-bedroom apartments go for $765 to $918 a month with the teacher discount. Two-bedroom units are $1,475 to $1,575.
The refurbished complex's success has been noted by the owner of another 19th-century mill in the neighborhood.
"Our financing has just fallen into place," said David Tufaro, president of Terra Nova Ventures, a group that plans to create 93 rental apartments and two restaurants in the red-brick complex known as Mount Vernon Mill No. 1 about a mile south of Union Mill along the Jones Falls. "We expect to begin construction early next year."
Union Mill residents say they like the complex's abundant parking and proximity to the Hampden business district. They have formed their own running club, and they often meet — informally — at copying machines while preparing teaching materials.
"It's really a fascinating building," said Gillian Vernon, a Boys' Latin School teacher from Wilmington, Del. "I enter my apartment through a brick archway, but my kitchen is all modern appliances."
The Union Mill is one in a progression of 19th-century industrial and foundry complexes to undergo a creative renewal.
In the mid-1980s, the Mill Center opened with artists' studios and offices. It was followed by the Mount Washington Mill, home to WholeFoods, and Meadow Mill. Another Jones Falls landmark, the Stieff Silver building, opened in 2000 and is home to the Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering labs and offices.
The old Poole & Hunt Foundry, now known as Clipper Mill, is perhaps best known for Woodberry Kitchen, a restaurant that opened in 2007.
At Union Mill, the push is on to finish the job: Landscape the terraces and complete the office wing of the structure. Nonprofit groups are the target tenants for the office section. They will share a large conference space as well as the building's exercise room.
"When I first saw Union Mill, my reaction was I was jealous," said Ted Capshaw, an official of the Baltimore Urban Debate League, a nonprofit housed in Miller's Court.
Union Mill, located at Union and Buena Vista avenues on a Jones Falls Valley hillside, is a sturdy building recently outfitted with new windows. Its dark stone walls were all repointed, a laborious job completed earlier this year.
A squarish tower with large circular windows adds an architectural grace note to the unadorned walls of the old textile factory, which was known for decades as the Druid Mill. A tall, rectangular brick chimney also distinguishes the complex.
The mix of old and new has been a draw for tenants.
"They see the apartments listed online, but I like to see their reaction when I open an apartment door and show the space," Seawall executive Jon Constable said. "The building has cool old bones with nice modern amenities."