Baltimore's roofless Hebrew Orphanage feels strength returning to its historic walls

The first piece of new reinforcing steel went into a brick wall at the old Hebrew Orphanage last week. It was the initial implant of what promises to be a total structural strengthening and reconstruction of a landmark 1876 building that spent the past 30 years unoccupied.

After it was abandoned as a hospital in 1989, its roof collapsed. Rain and snow left the building a near wreck in the Greater Rosemont-Coppin Heights neighborhoods.

Its historic status was recognized about a decade ago, when its failing walls were secured with temporary supports. Now the real work of saving the castle of Rayner Avenue has begun.

”I’ve been exhilarated to see the transformation taking place,” said Gary Rodwell, director of the Coppin Heights Community Development Corp., the group that owns the building. “It’s now safe enough to walk inside. It’s light and airy and the majesty of the historic structure shines through.”

The former orphanage, which later served as the West Baltimore General Hospital and the Lutheran Hospital of Maryland, is now making a journey to become a neighborhood showplace.

Built through the philanthropic generosity of Baltimore’s Jewish community, including a philanthropic leader, William Rayner, this citadel-like brick structure has lived two lives, all of which are visible in the painstaking deconstruction and rebuilding effort now playing out. There are massive oak beams from the days when the place was filled with orphan children. There’s the iron lifting mechanism of a primitive elevator used to lift patient gurneys. There are the remains of a previous 19th-century building and an old coal cellar.

A bit of a cracked terrazzo floor survives in one place; a section of ceramic tiling suggests a hospital laundry with a cast-iron hot-water boiler. A sign, now faint, says, “Ward of children.” One day this week workers found a history of Har Sinai Congregation buried in a wall.

Substantial masonry stanchions (the construction industry calls them “dead men”) support the temporary beams that anchor the original walls. There are brackets, bolsters and clamps holding up what were once floors and staircases. There is no roof. Every good fortress has towers, and the ones here on Rayner Avenue in Rosemont once held Victorian radiator-heating piping. There is no sign of a furnace.

The old orphanage appears to be a body that has been picked clean. Only the old bones endure encased in a spider’s web of steel scaffolding.

“And yet, as scary as this place is, when it was new, it was a fine building,” said Sean Scott, the Southway Builders superintendent.

The present work, a joint venture of Southway and C.L. McCoy Framing Co., will take the fractured, 143-year-old shell of the structure and make it strong and safe again. Once complete, the place can be fitted out for a nonprofit center that has its origins in the Baltimore Health Department and Behavioral Health System Baltimore.

The center will make use of the building's first floor, and other spaces will serve community health care providers. The $17 million renovation is being undertaken by the nonprofit Coppin Heights Community Development Corp. and Cross Street Partners.

“When we first looked at it, it was obvious this was another opportunity to bring new life to a neighborhood and be impactful,” said C. William “Bill” Struever of Cross Street Partners. “New life not only for the building, but for the future of the community. It is a glorious, iconic symbol of our past. It is an essential part of the fabric of out community. It’s great that it’s there, surviving and not a pile of bricks.”

As building materials arrived and the first sections of new flooring started to take shape, superintendent Sean Scott surveyed the gutted orphanage/hospital interior.

“It’s a building that has been trying to fall down for decades,’ he said. “No more.”

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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