Baltimore City

A developer faces off with Hampden’s beloved chimney swifts

Thousands of chimney swifts return to their communal roost at Free State Bookbinders at dusk.

A controversy is now roiling a part of the Hampden neighborhood. A developer wants to level a secluded 1930 industrial property and replace it with a six-story apartment house, complete with parking and a swimming pool.

Added to the drama is a stout brick chimney that once served the old clothing factory’s boiler. It’s a tall smokestack where thousands of migrating chimney swifts swoop and spend the night in the late summer and again in the spring. Come morning, they take off.


The show the birds make is enough to draw dozens of human onlookers to take in this semiannual ornithological show. This smokestack has achieved a real following.

The building, at 3110 Elm Ave., is known as the Free State Bookbinders, a business that started operating here in 1984 but shut down about a year ago.


The factory itself dates to the summer of 1930. The chimney where the swifts retire on some nights is about 60 feet high and was part of the original plant.

The builder and original owner is the English-American Tailoring Co., a firm that still custom-makes suits and other garments in Westminster. The tall smokestack vented a boiler that produced the steam for heating and the clothing pressing machines.

It seemed that it was only a matter of time for the bookbindery, a business that, until it shut down, was one of the few still working survivors of Hampden’s industrial past.

Now a developer, the Segall Group wants a 155-unit apartment building there. It’s a desirable site within this dense neighborhood, a kind of village, adjacent to the Jones Falls watershed and with trim rowhouses tightly squeezed on narrow, hillside streets.

Not so long ago the nearby Fox Industries building, where Noxzema skin cream was made, became apartments. New town houses now line the grounds of the old Florence Crittenton Home property.

Neighborhood residents are on guard. They do not like the scale of the proposed replacement structure. There are questions about the migrating swifts and their fate.

Members of Baltimore’s Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel met last month and reviewed the proposal by the developer and its architect. The panel members were skeptical.

“Your current design could be a good building, but is it a good building for this site? ... It feels like a really big mass,” said panel member Pavlina Ilieva.


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Osborne Anthony, another member, said: “You were handed a difficult site with different conditions and you have to respond. ... You try to capture the charm of the community, but you’re removing the charm. ... The building is really huge.”

Defending his work, architect Peter Fillat said: “I think one of the things we are thinking about is the economy of construction, and that’s what leads us to part of this solution, and while we do want to build a highly amenitized and nicely finished building, there is a limit to the kind of structural gymnastics that would allow these other concepts to happen.”

Residents on the nearby streets are seeking historic preservation status for the 1930 English-American Tailoring complex. They argue that it is a part of the Hampden industrial fabric and deserves preservation.

Others see it as an environmental issue — that the swifts deserve a place to call home, in a safe neighborhood, if only for a bit of the year.

City Council member Odette Ramos, who was been monitoring this issue, said: “There is a lot happening in my Black neighborhoods that could use new development. Why does it have to happen here?”

Michel Galitzin, who lives nearby and belongs to South Hampden Neighbors, said: “What is proposed is so out of scale with the neighborhood. We live in a dense place, already crowded from the conversion of the Fox Building. I notice a big increase in traffic in the 30 years since I lived there.”


“The fabric of this community is an industrial village,” said Kathleen Littleton, who can view the chimney from her home. “This is not a Home Depot issue on Route 40. This is a beautiful neighborhood. We see the opportunity to bolster Hampden’s charm, rather than eliminate it.”