The city tapped the Afro newspaper and its philanthropic arm to revitalize Baltimore’s historic Upton Mansion for their new headquarters, officials announced Wednesday.
Restoration of the mansion, the last surviving Greek Revival country house in Baltimore, is projected to cost more than $7 million and reestablish the property as a community anchor in the Upton neighborhood.
Baltimore’s Department of Housing & Community Development selected The Afro’s bid for the project following its request last April seeking a developer to rehabilitate the dilapidated landmark.
The project is expected to be funded by a mix of grants, federal and state tax credits, city funds and some equity from the family-owned weekly newspaper, according to a preliminary breakdown provided by Lisa R. Hodges-Hiken, the project’s development consultant and a principal with Hodges Development.
The new facility will include offices for The Afro’s journalists and executives as wells as space for its archives, classrooms, theaters, a fitness area and exhibition rooms, said Dale Green, the lead architect and a professor of architecture and historic preservation at Morgan State University.
In the dimly lit quarters of what once served as the carriage house of West Baltimore’s Upton Mansion, The Rev. Frances Murphy Draper, the senior pastor at the Freedom Temple A.M.E. Zion Church and the newspaper’s publisher and CEO, said the organization looks forward to returning to its West Baltimore roots. It currently works out of offices in Halethorpe.
“This is a community that is going to thrive, this is a community that people are going to want to come to,” she said. “And, this is a community that, quite frankly, we are not willing to just give over to outside developers.”
“Amen,” replied some members of the crowd.
Draper’s great-grandfather John H. Murphy Sr. established The Afro in 1892 with its first offices in Upton, Draper said. It’s considered the nation’s oldest family-run black newspaper.
Upton, along with several other West Baltimore neighborhoods, has been highlighted as a funding priority for the city, as an area that features fine architecture as well as an active black community presence. State officials designated much of Upton and neighboring areas last year as part of Maryland’s first Black Arts & Entertainment District, which qualifies the area for tax breaks to help draw creatives, businesses and other resources to invest there and ease the crime and blight associated with the once-bustling Pennsylvania Avenue.
The mansion, along with several other landmarks of the district’s storied past, has languished due to vacancy and vandalism.
Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage, said in an email that the investment in the Upton Mansion will be well-spent on The Afro.
“For nearly 100 years Afro photographers and reporters have covered events there and it’s through their work that we know about the important contributions from West Baltimore to the Civil Rights Movement, fostering start-up entrepreneurs, and Baltimore’s great music and cultural scenes,” Hopkins said.
Before the mansion was built in 1838 as the “country home” of Baltimore attorney David Stewart, who later served briefly as a U.S. senator, the property served as quarters to enslaved African Americans, Green said. The mansion later became the headquarters for Baltimore’s oldest radio station — WCAO, which was licensed in 1922 — and the Baltimore Institute of Musical Arts, an African American musical conservatory.
The Baltimore City school system occupied the building from 1957 to 2006, but it fell into disrepair after the agency departed. In 2009, Maryland Magazine and Preservation Maryland deemed the Greek Revival structure among the most endangered buildings in the state.
Wanda Best, the executive director of the Upton Planning Committee, which helped usher in The Afro’s relocation to West Baltimore, said it proved fitting for the newspaper’s headquarters to return to the community.
“Welcome home,” she said.
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Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the education system that occupied the mansion. The Sun regrets the error.