The grand exterior of the Eastern Avenue Pumping Station seems to belie its humble purpose.
“Everything that gets flushed down the drain ... gets collected there," said Rachel Ellis, executive director of the Public Works Experience. “It’s a lot of poop." From there, the city’s dirty water — around 25 million gallons a day — is pushed to the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant.
From the outside, it would be hard to tell. The Classical Revival design by architect Henry Brauns includes a copper clad roof and slate shingles. The large size accommodated the huge, steam-powered pumps, which have since been replaced. Kathleen Sherrill, president of SP Arch Inc., admires flourishes like an off-limits attic and terracotta masonry in the windows.
“The detail for what is essentially a utility building is incredible,” said Sherrill, who has worked on various renovation projects of the century-old building, which she considers “the crowning piece” of Baltimore’s water system.
Some Baltimoreans will remember visiting the Public Works Museum, which operated in the building from 1982 to 2010. Ellis and others are working to bring hands-on exhibits back to the site. Residents will also have a chance to go inside during this year’s Doors Open Baltimore event held the first weekend of October.
The building’s seemingly gross purpose was cause for celebration in 1912, when the pumping station first opened on the banks of the Jones Falls, says Tom Liebel, author of the book “Industrial Baltimore.”
“Baltimore was really proud that we had clean water and sanitation,” Liebel said. Although some Baltimore residents lacked running water until the 1940s and ’50s, visiting bathhouses to get clean.
The project to create a municipal sewage system was a massive undertaking. According to a report from the city’s commission for historical and architectural preservation, which designated the pumping station a historical landmark in 2015, at the time it “was touted as the largest sewer construction and sewage disposal project ever completed in the world.”
Aside from its visual beauty, the pumping station helped clean up the Inner Harbor, which had until then acted as an open sewer for the rest of the city. However dirty the harbor’s water may be today, Liebel says, it’s still much cleaner than it was in the 1800s.