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Allies join call to spare jazz legend Cab Calloway's Baltimore home from the wrecking ball

Allies join call to spare jazz legend Cab Calloway's Baltimore home from the wrecking ball
Signage reads "CAB CALLOWAY," "HISTORY HIDES IN DARKNESS," "Black History was made HERE!" and "DO NOT DEMOLISH!" on the front facade of Cab Calloway's former home at 2216 Druid Hill Avenue in Baltimore. (Sameer Rao / Baltimore Sun)

The family of Cab and Blanche Calloway is rounding up support for their effort to preserve the vacant rowhouse at 2216 Druid Hill Ave. — where the siblings and jazz pioneers lived as teens nearly 100 years ago — that is at risk of demolition.

The head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund wants the city to “save Cab Calloway’s house.” So does the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation, named after the acclaimed rapper who spent his teenage years in Baltimore, which argues the now-blighted home should be transformed into a landmark.

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Five of Cab Calloway’s family members — including two of his three living children — recently issued a statement saying they are “building a coalition of partners and friends to create a landmark and thriving destination of which all the residents of Baltimore can be proud.”

“The legacy of Blanche and Cab Calloway is larger than these two individuals,” the family’s statement said. “Their legacy represents significant innovations in American music, Baltimore's Black cultural heritage, as well as an industrious spirit that serves as an example for generations to follow. We are confident that all parties involved can unite to preserve the precious history represented by this property."

Calloway’s grandson Peter C. Brooks spearheaded the family’s push for preservation ever since learning about the house’s history. In May, he and other preservationists started speaking out against a city- and community organization-backed plan to demolish the house, as well as the rest of the 2200 block of Druid Hill Ave. The city’s Department of Planning and the Druid Heights Community Development Corp. hope to incorporate the land into Cab Calloway Square, a planned green space within the Baltimore Green Network Vision, and integrate bricks from the house in its design.

Tammy Hawley, a spokeswoman for Baltimore’s Department of Housing and Community Development, said “no immediate course of action [is] taking place” with regard to the house. Although the house, which is owned by the city, could be released, or greenlit, for demolition at any point in the fiscal quarter that began July 1, she said such a decision would take “at least three-to-six months.” She said the department is following the community’s lead regarding development plans — and plenty of time remains for new ideas to be considered.

Anthony Pressley, executive director of the Druid Heights Community Development Corp., has said community members want a park to replace the buildings. They’ve long been vacant, and Pressley said they’ve been that way since the unrest following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

City Councilman Leon Pinkett, who represents the neighborhood, says it’s unfortunate the house has been left in a state of disrepair for so long. Its weathered, boarded-up facade is marked with white Xes on red square signs signaling it’s structurally unsound.

“The building is [in] such a state of disrepair that I’m not certain how successful we can be in restoring it,” he said.

Still, he hopes that Cab’s descendants and those who live in the neighborhood today can collaborate on a way to properly pay tribute to the pair.

“Cab’s family and the Druid Hill community are going to have to come together and figure out how to memorialize his legacy,” Pinkett said. “Whether that’s preserving the house or dedicating a park with a monument to Cab, I think it’s too soon to say.”

Cab Calloway performed at the historic Royal Theater during its heyday on Pennsylvania Avenue, which runs four blocks away from the abandoned house. The theater was torn down in 1971, and Brooks wants to make sure the Calloway home doesn’t meet the same fate. The state recently designated the area around the once-thriving black commercial corridor as an official arts and entertainment district. Brooks believes that the designation justifies the family’s point.

“The home of Cab and Blanche Calloway being in the shadow of that district is, in fact, proof that it is one of the most important arts and entertainment venues in the United States,” he said. “The state has a real opportunity to promote both entertainment and the history of entertainment if we preserve this house.”

The Royal Theater & Community Heritage Corp.’s president said he and his group stand behind the Calloway family’s efforts. James Hamlin thinks if the house is fixed up it could be a boon for city tourism.

“Our concern is that so much of our history is constantly being torn down, and we need to put a stop to it,” Hamlin said. “Let it stay.”

Calloway, who was born in 1907 and died in 1994, was dubbed "the King of Hi-De-Ho” and widely associated with Harlem’s Cotton Club. An actor, band leader and scat singer, he had his biggest hit with “Minnie the Moocher.” He recalled getting his musical start in Baltimore and said that the city had been “one of the great centers of jazz.”

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An online petition to save the house started by Brooks has more than 500 signatures.

On June 30, Brooks published a YouTube video of Brent Leggs, who leads the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, saying that “we got to save Cab Calloway’s house” while speaking at Morgan State University.

More support came from the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation. A statement from the foundation, attributed to the late musician’s sister Sekyiwa Shakur, noted that the house offers a chance “to say to the children of Baltimore that history is beneath their feet, and the future in their hands." It also argued for the city to deem the house a landmark “to be celebrated and preserved for generations to come.”

“Accolades alone cannot define the impact that Cab Calloway and his family have had on our community and our country,” Shakur wrote. “This home should be celebrated.”

Brooks’ brother, Christopher Calloway Brooks, called history “the most precious, priceless, irreplaceable thing we’ve got.” The home should serve as a reminder of what Calloway achieved, providing inspiration to the next generation of Baltimoreans.

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“Baltimore has lost several of its treasures, and it’s time to be more responsible,” he said. “It takes inspiration sometimes to keep putting one foot in front of another, especially if you live in a neighborhood that’s become as blighted as that one has.”

The family consolidated its aims onto a website, thecallowayhome.org, that lists a Commission of Historical and Architectural Preservation meeting July 9 among ways supporters can mobilize. The Department of Planning will have a report on the condition of the 2200 block of Druid Hill Ave. at that meeting, according to CHAP’s website.

Cab Calloway's music, talent and affable manner created a legend that should be preserved in hos old neighborhood, advocates say.
Cab Calloway's music, talent and affable manner created a legend that should be preserved in hos old neighborhood, advocates say. (Baltimore Sun file photo)
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