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Baltimore City

A bold funding campaign saves Area 405, a hub of art studios and workspaces in Baltimore’s Greenmount West neighborhood

Few people pass 405 E. Oliver St. It’s hard to spot, tucked on what is a side street between the Amtrak railroad tracks and Green Mount Cemetery. For the past two decades, maybe more, this enclave within the larger Greenmount West neighborhood has been ground zero for local artists.

It took nearly a year and $3.8 million for a neighborhood-based nonprofit community group to bank the funds to preserve 405 Oliver St. as the industrial building it is — a place for creatives to have their artist studios and workshops.

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Once a sleepy industrial backwater (the adjacency to the railroad was an asset), the place has changed with the times. As old Baltimore plants such as Lebow clothes, Crown Cork & Seal and Brannigan’s dressmakers left, the sculptors, photographers and painters moved in. They christened this particular Oliver Street building the Area 405 after an art gallery and event space. The name stuck.

The artists put together galleries and shows, and attracted patrons and curators from other arts communities, sometimes outside Maryland.

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Earlier this week, came a statement that “through a robust capital raise and a unique public-private partnership, Baltimore’s critical and historic artist/maker space, Area 405, has been purchased by 405-417 East Oliver Street Partners, an LLC formed by nonprofit organization Central Baltimore Partnership and Baltimore-based real estate developer Ernst Valery and the Aequo Fund.”

The property’s private owners had decided it was time to sell. Property values have been rising throughout Baltimore and, within a seven-month period, appraisals for 405 increased $700,000.

And while Greenmount West may not be on everyone’s radar as a much improving and vacant-house free neighborhood, it is. (It was once 40 percent vacant).

Homes have been nicely rehabilitated on streets near the west stone wall of Green Mount Cemetery. The Guilford Hall Brewery opened last year around the corner from Area 405. A vacant lot became a group of new rowhouses.

Penn Station, a quick walk from 405 Oliver, is now undergoing a major rehab.

What changed hands is a 120-year-old, 71,744-square-foot building often felt to be the heart of Baltimore’s Station North Arts District.

“Area 405 is Baltimore’s largest hub of art studios and workspaces — used by more than 40 artists, including some of Baltimore’s best known,” said Ellen Janes, director of the nonprofit Central Baltimore Partnership.

In a statement, Mayor Brandon Scott said: “I am happy to see that Area 405 will be improved, its mission of housing makers and artists will be preserved, and additional activation will be expanded in order to preserve affordability and instill equity in the neighborhood.”

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The idea is to save the building’s use for the arts community and add to the number of studios in spots once used as storage. There is some space in the back of the property that may accommodate affordable apartments for artists.

Also saved is a popular tool library where any city resident may use large table saws or borrow shovels and portable drills.

Credit should be given to the local philanthropic community for getting behind the $3.8 million purchase. The Robert W. Deutsch, France-Merrick and Goldseker foundations, Baltimore City’s Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund and another entity, the Reinvestment Fund, came up with significant donations or loans.

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The State of Maryland also backed the project with $1.2 million, funding that was championed by Delegates Maggie McIntosh and Stephanie Smith and Senators Cory McCray and Bill Ferguson.

The building once housed the C.M. Kemp industrial manufacturing plant. Kemp employees were busy during World War II making metal devices for securing landing craft to beaches.

It also served as a venetian blind factory, and in previous lives, had been a brewery. An industrial workhorse, Area 405 also was a place that produced the small furnaces that melted lead for the linotype machines used in printing.

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As an arts venue, Area 405 has hosted weddings and other social events. At least two plays, “Sweeney Todd” and “Romeo and Juliet,” were performed here.

The oldest use was the 1848 Albion Brewery, later known as the Berger Brewery.

Ernst Valery, the Area 405 co-developer, completed the Nelson-Kohl apartments on Lanvale Street (just north of Penn Station) and the Ministry of Brewing, formerly St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church in Butcher’s Hill.

Look for the first construction work to address building code issues at Area 405. Creation of new work studios will follow. The Central Baltimore Partnership is now looking for new arts tenants.


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