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To rebuild East Baltimore’s Hoen plant, workers had to remove the trees

The A. Hoen & Co. Lithography building in East Baltimore is being redeveloped by Cross Street Partners. This is one of the upper floors.
The A. Hoen & Co. Lithography building in East Baltimore is being redeveloped by Cross Street Partners. This is one of the upper floors. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

It has been 38 years since the printing operation ceased at the Hoen complex in East Baltimore. Now, 18 months into its $28 million restoration, the labor-intensive push of its rebuilding is showing results.

It’s also one of those Baltimore places that deserve a visit on a fall Sunday, when it’s open to the public as part of the annual Doors Open Baltimore event.

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When you climb a flight of steps to one of its print rooms — more like a broad football field — there are wide views from the 19th-century windows of the Amtrak approach to the city and the rooftops of the Berea and Broadway East neighborhoods. The Hopkins medical campus is to the south along with the old clock tower of Saint Wenceslaus Church.

Visiting this stoutly constructed plant is also a way to experience an underappreciated neighborhood being rebuilt, building by building.

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The Hoen campus — three historic structures and two warehouses — were empty so long that vegetation and nature had reclaimed the place. A small grove of paulownia trees rooted themselves and grew unchecked within the old brick walls of the complex at East Biddle and Chester streets.

“The place was inundated with roots and trees,” said Jo Stallings, marketing director of Cross Street Partners, the building’s general contractor and one of its future tenants.

“Beyond being a nuisance and an eyesore, the trees threatened the structural integrity of the buildings, which prevented us from beginning construction," Stallings said. "It became apparent that for us to realize our grand vision for transforming this historic industrial complex into a thriving neighborhood asset, we needed to completely clear the site of these trees, regardless of how long or tedious the process was.”

Construction workers had to extricate the soft, pulpy wood. Once these cavities had been cleaned out, bricklayers infilled and repointed the walls. In the next few months, the broad industrial floors will become The Center for Neighborhood Innovation. Among its tenants will be Strong City Baltimore, the Construction Education Academy of the Associated Building Contractors and City Life Community Builders, as well as Cross Street Partners.

The Hoen firm, founded in 1835, was known for its fine printing and talented employees who turned out colorful tobacco and cannery labels, theatrical posters, Topps baseball cards and the detailed paper maps that, once folded, were inserted into National Geographic magazine. It used a process called lithography, in which skilled artists drew on flat stones, enabling prints to be made. Those stones were heavy and could be large; workers needed a substantial structure to turn out those posters and other illustrations.

During the course of the Hoen rebuild, a worker discovered a cache of original Hoen documents typical of the fine print work created here. The treasured papers were rolled in tight bundles and stuffed into a niche atop an old safe.

“Their precision and mastery of the [Hoen] color processes made them highly sought after, particularly in the fields of medicine and geography,” Stallings said. “Several pieces we found in particularly good condition were anatomical drawings made in conjunction with the Johns Hopkins University Department of Art as Applied to Medicine."

Some of the discovered illustrations were the work of Max Brodel, who died in 1941. Brodel, a medical illustrator, was born in Leipzig, Germany, and lived in Baltimore’s Guilford neighborhood.

The Hoen Building will be open as part of Doors Open Baltimore weekend when many notable and historic structures are open to the public. Guided tours are available at the Hoen building at 10:30 a.m, 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Stallings asks that participants wear flat, closed-toe shoes.

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