Baltimore Heritage stays current while preserving city’s past

Baltimore City Hall. The Hippodrome Theatre. Lloyd Street Synagogue. The Scottish Rite Temple. The Garrett-Jacobs Mansion. Those are just a few of the landmarks that might not be part of Maryland's landscape if it weren't for Baltimore Heritage, an advocacy group that works to protect and promote Baltimore's historically and architecturally significant buildings, places and neighborhoods.

The organization is marking its 50th anniversary, with an awards gala at the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion on June 11, tours of local landmarks, citations to "centennial" families that have lived in the same house for more than 100 years and other events designed to appeal to the "inner preservationist" in everyone.

Since 2003, the organization's executive director has been Johns Hopkins, a 40-year-old Bolton Hill resident who is a distant relative of the 19th-century entrepreneur who founded the Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Hospital. Hopkins notes that Baltimore Heritage has moved into the 21st century with a website, a blog and accounts on Facebook and Twitter. But he says there's still nothing like getting people to visit historic places and meet the people who care for them. He spoke recently about how far the organization has come and where it's heading.

Question: How did Baltimore Heritage get started?

Answer: Our history can be traced to a bus tour on May 21, 1960, that was organized by the Junior Chamber of Commerce, along with a number of institutional partners — the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters, the Peale Museum, the American Institute of Architects and others. The bus tour was organized to bring people together to look at historic places around the city and then, after the bus tour, to meet and talk about founding an organization that could advocate for and educate people about historic places indefinitely. Out of that bus tour, Baltimore Heritage was born.

Q: What prompted the bus tour?

A: One of the major catalysts was a proposal [by the Walters] to demolish the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion on Mount Vernon Place to make way for an expansion. The bus tour was organized essentially to try to point out what ‘urban renewal' ought to be sparing.

Q: The Walters eventually dropped its plans to raze the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion, which is now home to the Engineers Club, and Baltimore Heritage had an early victory. Today, preservation seems to be an issue that ebbs and flows as various crises pop up. How do you keep it on the radar screen?

A: It's not in our control when the large proposed demolitions will come up, or the large proposed city-shaping ideas will come up. But what we can do on a constant level is keep educating people about what we have. We have a behind-the-scenes tour program, and every three or four weeks we go take a look at a different historic building or historic place in the city. The goal is to have an outreach and education effort going on all the time.

Q: Where is Baltimore excelling in preservation?

A: On a macro level, I think we're doing a good job, not just Baltimore Heritage but a number of groups, at engaging people in preservation matters in a deeper way than a lot of other cities are. We're reaching out to people who are outside the usual suspects. A great example for us is our work in African American historic neighborhoods across the city. You have community centers and churches that are taking care of history. They might not call themselves preservationists, but they are just as much preserving and promoting our heritage as anybody is.

Second, we're an old industrial city that has had a lot of decline, and I think as much as any city in the country, we're using preservation and our historic assets for economic revitalization. If you talk to [Westside Renaissance executive director] Ron Kreitner, he'll tell you [that] of all the investment on the west side of downtown in the last 10 years, the lion's share has been historic buildings being rehabbed and converted, using tax credits for historic preservation.

Q: Where is Baltimore falling short?

A: We've got neighborhoods that are literally falling down. You go in East Baltimore or West Baltimore, and you can pick half a dozen or a dozen neighborhoods. I guess it's when you have gone from a city of 950,000 down to whatever we are, the challenges are just extraordinary with the number of vacants and the length of time that they have sat vacant.

Q: That's a much different issue than preventing individual landmarks from being demolished.

A: In some years, our challenges have been battling demolition proposals. In some years, our challenge has been figuring out what to do with hulking industrial buildings. Now I think the challenge is trying to turn the corner with community development and historic preservation in severely disinvested historic neighborhoods. We're in a preservation outreach mode. We have to reach out to neighborhoods that need help in the short term to make sure they are there in the long term.

So if one of our goals is to engage the inner preservationist in each of us, the other macro goal is to use our assets, our historic buildings and neighborhoods, for revitalization and economic development We have strategically chosen to concentrate on a number of neighborhoods, first in West Baltimore, and use preservation for community development. This will be a multiyear effort. It's not something new, but it's absolutely something we want to promote and do more of: community development in historic disinvestment neighborhoods.

Q: Some would say preservationists are obstructionists, that they try to hold up development. How do you respond to that?

A: That's something I personally get called sometimes, the word "obstructionist." One response is that we have many different roles in helping shape Baltimore City. We have an educational role. We have a technical-assistance role, helping homeowners use tax credits for historic preservation. We have a heritage role, in helping neighborhoods get listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We've got all of these roles, and one role clearly is to try to prevent the demolition of significant historic places. That's where we get branded as obstructionists. People who throw that out sort of forget that we have all these other roles and focus on that one. ... I don't look at us as obstructionists or oppositionists as much as I look at us as trying to bring a different thought process to the development table.

The other sad response is that you can point to any number of surface parking lots in Baltimore City where there have been these great projects that were supposed to go up and historic buildings were demolished and the land is still a parking lot. The classic example is right in the Inner Harbor, the McCormick [spice factory] site that was torn down for redevelopment. Certainly if it were around today, it would have been gobbled up for apartments, mixed use, whatever. But it was demolished for the prospect of a new building, and nothing was ever built. So I think the corrollary to us trying to bring alternative approaches is that, in some significant instances, we have lost great buildings but haven't had anything take their place, and that's a double tragedy.

Q: What buildings are on your watch list these days?

A: One that we are actively involved with is the [former]) Hebrew Orphan Asylum in West Baltimore, a very large, very prominent, wonderful high-architecture building that sat vacant for many years. Coppin State University owns it and is trying to figure out how to preserve it, and we're helping them. Another is is the Sellers Mansion, which anchors the southeast corner of Lafayette Square. The St. James Community Development Corp. owns it and they have been trying to figure out what to do with it.

Q: You're a distant relative of Johns Hopkins?

A: I have learned to say collateral heir. That is the genealogical term.

Q: What's the best thing about having the name you have?

A: The best thing is that it elicits some really creative responses from people. If I give someone my credit card, I might get, "Oh yeah? Well my name is Thomas Jefferson." Most people just chuckle and say, "Are you for real?" Occasionally I'll get a real doozy. Or somebody'll ask me for a million dollars.

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