Saving the best of abandoned Baltimore rowhouses

A brick-by-brick deconstruction of rowhouses taking place in Sandtown

In the 1500 block of McKean Ave., on the western edge of Sandtown, men and women of the early 21st century pull apart what workers of the late 19th century built with masonry and lumber: the two-story rowhouses on the east side of the street. The houses come down pretty much the way they went up more than 120 years ago — joist by joist, brick by brick.

The idea is to save the best of the material for another use, to recycle pieces of left-for-dead Baltimore for something new — maybe an addition on a rowhouse somewhere else, a set of wooden tables for a $4-a-cup coffee shop, walls of rough-sawn pine in a suite of offices.

Nearly 950,000 people once lived in Baltimore, a sprawling grid of hundreds of residential streets and side streets and avenues, rowhouses everywhere, and all of them filled with families at the city's population peak.

But the number of inhabitants declined by a third over the last half-century. Now, on this side street in West Baltimore, all souls are gone. The houses on the west side have been boarded up. Some of their roofs and rear walls have collapsed; you can see sky through their windows. Various species of gnarly weed-trees thrive along the curb.

A demolition crew cleared much of the east side of McKean years ago, leaving a large, grassy lot.

Now the deconstruction crew from an outfit called Brick + Board is in the process of bringing down what's left — the last six houses near the southeast corner.

On Tuesday morning, Max Pollock led a crew of men and women in white hard hats through the process, pulling bricks from each wall of an exposed rowhouse, separating hard, smooth face brick from the coarser common brick that served as the inner layer of each wall. After chipping and brushing off the old mortar from each brick, the workers stacked them on pallets and wrapped them in plastic.

Pollock estimates that, in the six months that Brick + Board has been operation, it has salvaged for sale some 200,000 bricks.

And the floor joists — thick yellow pine, three inches by eight inches and as long as each rowhouse was wide — have a market, too.

"We've sold 30,000 feet of it," Pollock says, a lot of it for an office building under construction elsewhere in the city.

Pollock supervises Brick + Board and keeps a blog about the crew's adventures, the history of the neighborhoods it visits and the homes it takes down. Old trade journals helped him track down the source of materials that were used to build the rowhouses.

The bricks were made in Baltimore. The timbers, he found, came from North Carolina and Georgia, some from Virginia. Pollock believes a lot of the wood arrived here as logs, shipped up the Chesapeake Bay aboard schooners to be milled in Baltimore.

"On maybe one out of every 200 joists," he says, "someone painted the name of a [lumber] company and the name of a schooner."

A graduate of the London School of Economics who was employed at a Washington think tank, the Urban Institute, until a couple of years ago, Pollock gets his hands dirty with his co-workers. Tuesday, he knocked bricks away from a section of Formstone, scraped paint off face brick and tapped at it with a hammer to show off its superior quality.

Brick + Board is a social enterprise of the workforce development nonprofit Humanim. It's a spinoff from an established Humanim program, Details, and its mission is to market the salvaged material from each rowhouse deconstructed under a city contract. It soon will open a warehouse and showroom in Remington.

The idea was always grand — put unemployed Baltimoreans to work carefully deconstructing some of the city's vacant rowhouses and salvaging the best materials from them, brick by brick. But could such an enterprise be profitable, or at least cover costs, especially with its pledge to pay a decent wage to its workers?

So far, so good. Pollock says there's no shortage of demand for the fine Baltimore brick and the strong old floor joists, pine flooring and even the strips of wooden lath that held the plaster walls in place. Under its contract with the city, Humanim must divert 95 percent of the waste from a landfill, and Pollock says Details and his Brick + Board crews always meet and sometimes surpass that goal.

The workers salvage at least 1,200 feet of joists from each house, sometimes more. They save mantels and stained-glass windows. They save every brick worth saving. Broken brick gets crushed and used to refill the foundations — now the graves — of the old rowhouses of McKean Avenue.

An earlier version misspelled Max Pollock's and Humanim's names. The Sun regrets the error.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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