Jacques Kelly: Upgrades underway in the community where Henrietta Lacks lived

Henrietta Lacks, the Baltimore County woman who died of cancer in 1951 and whose cells have been used in medical research since that time, has been the subject of a best-selling biography and this year’s HBO film, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

Now the place she called home is in the spotlight as well.

Lacks, her husband David and children, lived in Turner Station, at the time a racially segregated enclave located near Sparrows Point. Today hundreds of its homes are being refurbished as part of a roughly $25 million project funded by three local groups.

Lacks lived in a place called Lyon Homes, constructed in 1942 by the federal government. It’s a community where apartment groupings sit on large spaces, several facing county parks or Bear Creek.

The neighborhood was named for Ernest Lyon, a Baltimore African-American Methodist clergyman and pastor of the John Wesley Church at Montgomery and Sharp streets in South Baltimore. He also taught at what is now Morgan State University.

Booker T. Washington recommended Lyon to President Theodore Roosevelt, who named him consul to Liberia in 1903. He held the post until 1910 and later was pastor of the Ames Memorial Church.

When Lyon died in 1938, some 5,000 persons attended his funeral, many standing in the rain on Baker Street outside the West Baltimore church.

Years later, when there was a need for housing near Sparrows Point as the U.S. entered World War II, the federal government constructed Lyon Homes.

Constructed of brick with hardwood floors, Lyons Homes were designed by a prominent African-American architect, Hilyard Robinson of Washington, who is better known for a similar project there, Langston Terrace. He also designed and supervised construction of the airbase in Alabama for the Tuskegee Airmen.

David Lacks moved to Maryland from Virginia to work at the Sparrows Point shipyard, and rented a unit at Lyons Homes. A few months later his wife, Henrietta, joined him at the residence, 713 New Pittsburg Ave.

"It was a new house, with a nice new gas stove. Henrietta had never cooked before on anything but a wood stove," her husband recalled in a 1997 interview in The Sun.

Lacks reared five children there until the disease that eventually claimed her life prompted her to seek medical treatment at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Lyons remained in government hands until 1955, when a full page ad in The Sun announced it was “open for public bidding.” The Vechery and Schroyer families bought the Lyon Homes subdivision and rented out units until 2006.

It was then purchased by Charles “Chuck” Tini, a Johns Hopkins University graduate and Towson resident who owns and manages rental properties throughout Baltimore and seven states.“We bought it with the expressed purpose of keeping it affordable rental housing,” he said.

But Lyon Homes needed an upgrade.

“These homes were not equipped with showers, only bathtubs,” Tini said, “and the joists in the crawlspaces were rotting. They were built for coal furnaces and had outside coal chutes, which we had to brick in.”

Tini and his firm, CT Development Partners, formed a partnership with Telesis Baltimore and Southway Builders to guide the first phase of the renovation. So far, the group has started work on more than 118 units — 20 of them market rate rentals and 98 restricted affordable units.

The current work involves gutting the homes, rebuilding those rotted joists, refinishing the second floors with red maple flooring, adding central air conditioning and showers and new kitchens and powder rooms.

“We expect this renovation to serve the Turner Station community for many years to come,” Tini said.

He said Lyon Homes’ residents are vested in the community, and in Turner Station.

“Two of households have lived here for 60 years and another eight have lived here for 40 years,” he said.

“This is a place where the residents define the community.”

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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