Opposition grows to tearing down historic drugstore in Superblock plans

Civil rights and preservation leaders in Baltimore voiced strong objections Wednesday to a developer's proposal to raze part of downtown's Superblock, warning that the city would lose a priceless link to its past.

The plan by Lexington Square Partners calls for demolition of the former Read's drugstore, a vacant, city-owned building at the southeast corner of Howard and Lexington streets. According to historians, that store was the site of an early civil rights protest in which Morgan College students staged a sit-in on Jan. 20, 1955.

That event, historians say, was one of several Baltimore sit-ins that prompted Read's to change its policies and begin serving African-Americans at its lunch counters. They say it was a precursor to the more famous lunch counter sit-in at the F. W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C., in 1960. The Greensboro Woolworth store has since been turned into the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.

The proposed demolition is part of the $150 million Lexington Square retail and housing project planned for dowtown's west side.

On Wednesday, local civil rights leaders and preservationists called on Baltimore officials to rethink plans to allow the Read's building to be torn down. They say they intend to testify at a public meeting Thursday at which plans for the project will be reviewed by Baltimore's Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel.

"I request an immediate halt on planning and development of … Lexington Square," Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., former president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, wrote in an e-mail to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other city officials.

Cheatham called the former Read's drugstore "the site of the nation's first student lunch counter sit-ins." He noted in a phone interview that he was writing as a Baltimore resident and not an NAACP representative.

Cheatham said he can remember the days when Baltimore department stores didn't allow African-Americans to try on clothes, and he had to sit in the balcony of the Hippodrome Theatre because African-Americans weren't allowed to sit downstairs. He said Baltimore has a chance to "correct history" by preserving the Read's building.

"A plaque is not going to be sufficient," he said. "You just don't throw away history."

Attorney Larry Gibson, an expert on Baltimore's African-American history and member of Baltimore's Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation, said he has been working on an exhibit about the Read's sit-in for what is now Morgan State University. He said he plans to testify at the hearing and express his concerns about the proposal.

Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage, a citywide preservation advocacy group, said he received dozens of e-mails and calls Wednesday from members of his organization who are concerned about the project, particularly the scope of demolition work proposed. Hopkins said he is especially troubled by the idea of tearing down the Read's building, given its significance to America's civil rights movement.

"It's not just important in Baltimore's history. It's important in the history of the civil rights movement nationally," he said. "In Greensboro, they turned the lunch counter into a museum. In Baltimore, the proposal is to tear it down."

M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the quasi-public agency working with the developers, could not be reached Wednesday. He said earlier this week that the Read's building has been vacant for many years, is substantially different from the way it was in 1955, and has mold and other physical problems that would make it very difficult to save. "It's toxic," he said.

Brodie also said the developers would prefer to erect a new signature building for their project at the highly visible corner of Howard and Lexington streets and that the 1955 civil rights protest could be commemorated in ways other than saving the existing structure.

ed.gunts@baltsun.com

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