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Graffiti and signs on the front of 2216 Druid Hill Ave., a house where Cab Calloway lived as a teenager.
Graffiti and signs on the front of 2216 Druid Hill Ave., a house where Cab Calloway lived as a teenager. (Sameer Rao)

After months of opposition, the vacant West Baltimore house where Baltimore jazz legend Cab Calloway lived as a teenager will be demolished by the city, likely by the end of the year.

Razing the stretch of dilapidated rowhomes where the Harlem Renaissance figure spent his teenage years will make way for Druid Heights Cab Calloway Park, which supporters say will revitalize the neighborhood and honor Calloway’s legacy. But the musician’s descendants stand divided, some locked in a bitter dispute with park planners and leading last-ditch efforts to save the city-owned structure at 2216 Druid Hill Ave.

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Since May, Calloway’s grandson, Ashburton resident Peter Brooks, has been working with preservationists to stop the demolition on the grounds that it would rob Baltimore of a valuable historical monument and potential resource for community development.

What appeared to be constructive dialogue between Brooks’ allies and the Druid Heights Community Development Corp., the nonprofit planning the park, has devolved since into accusations of dishonesty and bad faith.

Tensions came to a head in late September, when Brooks and several supporters tried to enter a meeting at the Druid Heights CDC’s offices to deliver a petition with about 2,000 signatures supporting the house’s preservation. A confrontation ensued in and around the building lobby, and videos of the incident show Baltimore police standing between the two groups. (Police spokesperson Detective Jeremy Silbert said via email that the department could not find any call for service or incident report for that day and address.)

Posted by Michael Cornish on Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Druid Heights CDC published a statement on its website that alleged Brooks and others “tried to bully their way into the center" and “were refused entrance ... in order to prevent their planned disruption."

The statement also accused Brooks and preservation activist Marti Pitrelli of using underhanded methods to rally opposition.

Pitrelli and Brooks denied the allegations, with Pitrelli saying it was “absolutely false that anyone tried to bully their way in.” They said the CDC deprived them of the chance to raise legitimate questions about the development process.

Anthony Pressley, the CDC’s executive director, declined to comment on the situation beyond the board’s statement.

Councilman Leon Pinkett, whose district includes the Druid Heights neighborhood, said that “there’s overwhelming community support for the park.”

“That does not mean that the community does not acknowledge that this is a house that Cab Calloway lived in, [or that it doesn’t believe] that there should be some honoring of Cab Calloway’s life and legacy,” he said.

Plans for the park incorporate the facade and marble stoop of the Calloway house, according to the Druid Heights CDC.

Cabella Calloway Langsam, the bandleader’s daughter, also favor’s the park plan. She expressed “estate and personal support for the community’s plan to create and name a park after [her] father" in a letter that the CDC published Oct. 9 on Facebook.

The Calloway family fully supports the Cab Calloway Square project and has always been on board. If anyone has any questions about the project please call us at 410-523-1350.

Posted by Druid Heights Community Development Corporation on Wednesday, October 9, 2019

“The redevelopment of the area by the community minded [Druid Heights CDC] would both honor Cab Calloway and benefit the community with vital green space,” wrote Langsam, who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

She issued the letter through Creative Arts by Calloway LLC, an entity she founded with the jazz great’s widow, Zulme Calloway, and other daughter, Chris Calloway.

In 2009, Langsam, along with Chris and Zulme Calloway, lost a trademark dispute with Peter Brooks’ brother, Christopher Brooks, who performs his grandfather’s music with The Cab Calloway Orchestra and also supports preserving the house.

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Langsam said via email that “any legal situations" related to the trademark “are in the past and are not relevant to this project.”

She added that the late musician’s estate already donated his “historical items and artifacts” to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.

“We believe that the most effective and safest place for the history and mementos of Cab’s life and his importance is the Smithsonian … a controlled environment with a clear historical record of conservation and preservation,” she wrote. “If, like Louis Armstrong’s house, the structure was in excellent shape and contained the artifacts and mementos of Cab’s life, it might be a different story.”

In the meantime, the Calloway house remains in a state of disrepair, alongside other vacant, boarded-up rowhomes in the block. The city Department of Housing and Community Development confirmed plans to demolish them.

During a July Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation meeting, city planner Lauren Schiszik said that 2216 Druid Hill Ave. and five others on the block were “structurally unsound” and “unsafe for emergency personnel.” Calloway’s house suffered from a failing roof and extensive deterioration in the back.

Pinkett, who recently announced his candidacy for City Council president, said the decay “is an example of what happens when communities do not get the resources that they need" to save private homes and historical sites before they’re demolished. He also advocated for more safeguards that enable preservation and development in neighborhoods like Druid Heights, which is historically black, before development prices residents out.

“So many of these places of distinction throughout the city, especially those related to African Americans, we have allowed them to become in such a state of disrepair that it makes it even challenging to restore those monuments," he said.

Cab Calloway, a big band jazz pioneer and Harlem Renaissance figure, in a 1978 photo.
Cab Calloway, a big band jazz pioneer and Harlem Renaissance figure, in a 1978 photo. (Baltimore Sun file photo)

The deterioration has not deterred preservationists from their efforts to save the Calloway house.

Brooks approached Brian Hawkins, a developer operating under the banner of Better Baltimore LLC, to gauge his interest in preserving the block. Hawkins said he wants to turn the house into a Cab Calloway-oriented visitors center and recording studio with music technology education programs and lodging for traveling artists. He also said he submitted a proposal to purchase the block to city officials that projected an $8 million economic impact.

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“Mr. Hawkins has been informed on multiple occasions by various members of [the Department of Housing and Community Development’s] staff that the City isn’t accepting unsolicited bids,” spokesperson Kevin Nash wrote in an email.

Hawkins denied receiving those communications.

Pitrelli said she and Brooks will file to list 2216 Druid Hill Ave. in the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties. That state designation falls under the auspices of the Maryland Historical Trust, which oversees initial proposals for potential National Register of Historic Properties listings in the Free State.

Proposed listings typically take a minimum of 90 days for state review, according to the National Parks Service. After the parks service receives a recommendation from the state, it makes a listing decision within 45 days.

But neither state nor national listings would stop the planned demolition.

National Register status, according to the National Parks Service, opens doors to federal grants, easements, tax credits and other resources for preservation, but places no restrictions on what a non-federal owner may do with a property, including destruction.

The Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties "is solely an instrument for research and documentation,” and would not prevent demolition, a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Planning, which oversees the state trust, wrote in an email.

The house falls within the Old West Baltimore historic district, an area that the National Register of Historic Places deems historically significant.

Eric Holcomb, executive director of the city’s Commission on Historic and Architectural Preservation, said during the July meeting that this classification guards the property against immediate development, but offers no permanent protection from demolition using non-federal funds.

Brooks said he’ll still seek to preserve his family’s legacy, even if it doesn’t take place in Druid Heights.

“Almost no one in Baltimore knows the complete story of Blanche and Cab Calloway and their impact and importance, which still has resonance today,” he wrote in an email, referencing his grandfather and great aunt — a successful singer and bandleader in her own right. “This story, which can nurture and inspire, does not have a home. It originates at 2216 Druid Hill Avenue. I think the people of Baltimore deserve the opportunity to have their contribution to American history recognized internationally, because Blanche and Cab impacted the heritage of the world.”

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