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Formerly ‘rum row’ and Grand Central, these old walls cradle a new project in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood

The brick facade of the former Grand Central stands at the corner of Charles and Eager Streets in Mount Vernon as the site is being redeveloped into City House Charles.
The brick facade of the former Grand Central stands at the corner of Charles and Eager Streets in Mount Vernon as the site is being redeveloped into City House Charles. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

The northeast corner of Charles and Eager streets looks as if it’s being trussed together by a wall of wood. The former Grand Central nightclub is making a bold transition to a new, neighborhood-scale office building with space for a couple of restaurants.

This a delicate balancing act of historic preservation. The results, to be called City House Charles, promise to save the masonry walls of a pair of buildings that had a long past in Mount Vernon.

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“It’s a tight site in a historic neighborhood,” said Chuck Patterson of SM+P Architects. “It has its challenges.”

Over the winter workers have gutted the pair of buildings down to the shells of original walls. Architectural historian Fred Shoken feels that both 1001 and its northerly neighbor building were built as homes about 1854. A mansard-style roof was added to 1001 in the 1890s.

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The corner became the Charles Street Pharmacy, operated by David M.R. Culbreth, a leading early figure in the field of pharmacy teaching at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy.

The drugstore remained for decades, and in 1911 a Modern School of Stenography operated here, perhaps above the drugstore and soda fountain.

Patterson, the architect, said, “The goal is to create nice, class-A office space, and there’s a desire to have it in this area.” He said the new complex would have a central atrium and elevator lobby.

“It’s exciting for the neighborhood to see people who want to invest so much in it,” said Patterson.

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During the discussion about what would happen to this corner, Mount Vernon residents made it clear that preservation was a given.

People who live in this part of Baltimore have been its guardians for decades.

A 1942 Sun article told of how one of its most tenacious protectors, Douglas Huntly Gordon (he kept the Walters Art Museum from demolishing the Engineers Club on Mount Vernon Place) rounded up a posse of naysayers when the old China Clipper restaurant received a beer and wine license.

The Clipper operated at the north end of the property and was later conjoined with Grand Central to make one space.

Gordon, a fastidious preservationist, packed the liquor board with Mount Vernon social lions, such as Mrs. Richard Pleasants, who protested the “stench of alcohol” and called Charles Street a “rum row.” Mrs. Spaulding Jenkins contended that there were “too many saloons” on the street. An Eager Street doctor said the neighborhood was “full of riffraff.”

The China Clipper, represented by its owner, Marcia Lee, got to keep its wine and beer license, but it took anther 10 years until Lee could serve so much as a whiskey sour.

A gay bar, Grand Central, originally Central Station, arrived in the early 1990s and replaced what was then a lunch counter and patent medicine business known as Dilly’s.

Next to the China Clipper was an office tenant, an early ticket office for the Baltimore Orioles. It was here that baseball fans mailed their applications for season tickets for the 1954 season when the team returned to the American League.

“There’s an inherent challenge in historic buildings. It’s not just the constructability obstacles but the task of maintaining the past, the history and marrying it with a modern use and without becoming kitschy,” said Jon Pannoni, president of Landmark Partners, the owner and developer.

He said the pair of Charles Street structures were designed and constructed with “passion, dedication, personality, elite quality and functionality”

Pannoni also called it “a combination that is very difficult to replicate or achieve these days.”

He described the neighborhood as “an epicenter of culture, business and community — it feels like a neighborhood when you walk the streets. We love that location and proximity to Penn Station, I-83 and the rest of the city.”

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