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New homes are rising near Thurgood Marshall’s marble doorstep

Nonprofit real estate developer The Community Builders Inc. is constructing the Marshall Gardens project, dozens of new townhouses and apartments on several blocks in Druid Heights and Upton.
Nonprofit real estate developer The Community Builders Inc. is constructing the Marshall Gardens project, dozens of new townhouses and apartments on several blocks in Druid Heights and Upton.(Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

Along the West Baltimore streets Thurgood Marshall walked as a schoolboy and a young attorney active in the civil rights movement, the Supreme Court justice’s old neighborhood is being rebuilt.

Day by day, new walls rise along Division Street in the Upton-Druid Heights community just east of historic Pennsylvania Avenue.

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The Community Builders Inc., a nonprofit developer, is adding new houses and apartments spread throughout an urban campus in the heart of one of Baltimore’s seminal African American neighborhoods. Workers from Southway Builders put in footers and framed new homes this week.

The project, called Marshall Gardens, entails 60 townhouses and 27 apartments in the 1700 and 1800 blocks of Division Street and along the 500 blocks of Wilson, Laurens and Roberts streets. It’s basically new construction, although five classic rowhouses are being renovated.

This part of the community had an issue with vacant homes that were nearly all razed to create the Marshall Gardens footprint.

Thurgood Marshall was born in 1908 not far away on McMechen Street. He lived for a while at a fine home with marble steps at 1632 Division (at the southern edge of Marshall Gardens) and later resided on Druid Hill Avenue.

He was confirmed at another neighborhood landmark, St. Katherine of Alexandria Episcopal Church, also on Division Street. His grammar school was the Henry Highland Garnett School, now scheduled for preservation and renovation as a community center.

The block where Marshall lived on Division Street was home to prominent African American families.

"Division Street, after Druid Hill Avenue, was the second-most-prestigious address for blacks in Baltimore,” said Larry S. Gibson, the author of “Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice.”

Gibson, a University of Maryland School of Law professor who also sits on the city’s preservation commission, said that the 1632 Division St. home was important for other reasons. The home was owned by a Marshall family member, Fearless Williams, a personal assistant to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s president at its downtown headquarters.

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“Fearless could get you a job on the railroad, and he also had ties to having the railroad’s laundry done at a business along nearby Pennsylvania Avenue,” Gibson said.

This is an interesting part of the city, a residential district tucked away between Eutaw Place and Pennsylvania Avenue. MARC and AMTRAK rail passengers pass under parts of the neighborhood in the Baltimore and Potomac-Wilson Street Tunnel.

Marshall Gardens will serve as a mix of housing, including some for low-income families, defined as those making up to 40 percent of area median income, as well as workforce and market-rate housing.

“The goal is to end up with economic diversity within the community,” said Pat Wagner, project manager for The Community Builders.

He said that some of the initial tenants will be people moving out of Eutaw Place’s 1960s garden-style apartments called Pedestal Gardens. Several of these Jetsons-era urban renewal holdovers are scheduled to be demolished and replaced with structures more architecturally compatible with the Victorian-area tone of the Marble Hill and Bolton Hill neighborhoods.

Wagner said he’s been encouraged by the recent building activity along Thurgood Marshall’s birth street, McMechen Street, where The Jordan, an apartment house, opened with the Tilted Row restaurant as a ground-floor tenant.

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“Exciting things are happening in residential West Baltimore,” Wagner said. "Places like the Tilted Row show the potential of the community."

While Marshall Gardens is a rental community, Wagner feels that the standard of construction and design amenities will help boost real estate values within the larger neighborhood.

“Marshall Gardens will bring beautiful new housing,” he said. “And we would also like to see more home ownership here, but our development will be of the quality and appearance of single-family homes.”

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