Community leader Gary Rodwell walked down Rayner Avenue and looked toward the newly restored Hebrew Orphan Asylum and offered an impression: “It’s majestic. Just majestic.”
A few weeks ago the scaffolding came down as workers were applying finishing touches to the landmark Victorian structure that served as an orphanage and later a general hospital in the Coppin Heights-Rosemont section of West Baltimore.
“I kept hope alive this building could be saved,” said Rodwell, director of the Coppin Heights Community Development Corp. “It has been the product of a long plan.”
[ Baltimore's roofless Hebrew Orphanage feels strength returning to its historic walls ]
The successful $17 million restoration of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum stretched out over 16 years. Kann Associates, the architects, reinterpreted the structure’s grand Victorian staircase and added a skylight. Rodwell likes to take guests to its third floor and show how easily the Francis Scott Key Bridge can be seen. He also points out the sign for one of the large rooms: “Ward of Children.”
"People chose not to listen to those who said it could never be done. Now that it’s finished, it is nothing short of a miracle,” said Johns W. Hopkins, director of Baltimore Heritage. “This building started out providing care to children and their families in need in West Baltimore and is again serving this purpose as a cutting-edge opioid treatment center and a hub of community health care programs.”
The orphanage restoration is one of several projects the Coppin Heights Community Development Corp. has in the works this year. Others include the Walbrook Mill — rowhouse renovations on three blocks of West North Avenue — and the Rosemont and Gwynn Crest apartments.
[ Dan Rodricks: In Baltimore’s Coppin Heights, a big opportunity comes into view ]
The place has a new name too, the Center for Health Care and Healthy Living at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum.
Rodwell, a Baltimore native who was raised on West Mosher Street, was born in another community institution, the old Provident Hospital on Division Street.
“I wanted to ensure that the restoration of the orphanage would be done in an equitable way so that people who live here can benefit from the renaissance,” Rodwell said.
Years ago a group of community leaders, preservationists and officials of the Jewish Museum of Maryland launched a campaign to preserve what was then a vacant, boarded-up building. When it was acquired by Coppin State University in 2003, it looked as if it might blow down during a storm. It is now owned by Rodwell’s group.
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“You could not walk upright through it. I had to crawl,” said Rodwell.
Because of its somewhat eccentric architecture (heating pipes were concealed in its skinny towers), the daunting preservation project was compared to East Baltimore’s American Brewery on Gay Street.
Preservationist Johns Hopkins said in 2010, "There are only a set number of these grand, iconic buildings left unpreserved, and this is one of the largest. It is unusual. It is the oldest-surviving Jewish orphanage building in the country.”
[ A new use for West Baltimore's historic Hebrew Orphanage ]
Built in 1875-1876, it was donated by wealthy Jewish philanthropist William Rayner, who was born in Bavaria. After immigrating to Baltimore, Rayner made a fortune in 19th-century Baltimore real estate. A member of Har Sinai Congregation, he helped the city’s poor and served as the first president of the Hebrew Benevolent Society.
The Baltimore City Council named the West Baltimore street where the orphanage stands is his honor.
The building that fell in extreme disrepair and obscurity was once celebrated. Maryland Gov. John Lee Carroll and Baltimore Mayor Ferdinand C. Latrobe, Rabbi Benjamin Szold and members of Baltimore’s German-Jewish community, including the Gutman, Straus, Hutzler, Greenbaum, Burgunder and Friedenwald families, were present at its dedication in 1876.
The orphanage moved to West Belvedere Avenue in 1923, and the structure found a new use as the West Baltimore General Hospital, which later became Lutheran Hospital. The hospital established emotional connections to the people it served. Many a West Baltimore child was born there.