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Baltimore City

Open Works gets a second wind after the pandemic

The other day at Open Works, the sewing machines buzzed. Machine saws whirled. And a fancy computer router was replicating an 1870 cornice (in PVC, not wood) for a restoration of a nearby East Biddle Street rowhouse.

Harnessing the energy was a Greenmount West structure marked by an exterior mural and a deck outfitted with bright orange porch chairs. But no one was sitting around, except maybe for a break for a coffee brewed on the spot by the local craft business, Black Acres Roastery.

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It’s a “makerspace,” wherein participants can share industrial machines (including sewing machines), tools and entire rooms in a common environment. There also are plenty of for-rent studio spaces. And there are how-to classes on nights and weekends.

The idea is that the space — formerly a Railway Express Agency building just east of Pennsylvania Station at 1400 Greenmount Avenue — is a place where small makers create products that would be impractical to make at home. There are small manufacturers, artisans, entrepreneurs, craftspeople and hobbyists who pass through the Open Works doors.

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Busy places are the sewing room and the woodworking shop. It also dovetails with the arts and makers community that spills out from the Johnston Square neighborhood westward through Station North, places that are home to artists and makers. Commuters (both auto and rail) pass through this area every day; few people realize the quiet (and not so quiet) beehive of labor it is.

Will Holman, Open Works general manager, once described the place’s philosophy as a YMCA for makers. It’s a nonprofit and its classes open to the community.

Open Works made its debut in 2016 and its studio spaces filled up nicely. By 2020, it had 300 members enrolled and paying for studio spaces or classes. Then the pandemic arrived and Open Works shut down except for a small staff. But the work did not stop.

It actually went into something of an emergency mode. A group of six on the Open Works staff turned out 28,000 plastic face shields, the majority of which were worn subsequently by Department of Agriculture meat and dairy inspectors. Another large batch went to the University of Maryland Medical System.

When the pandemic sent Baltimore City Schools students to continue their learning at home, they were given laptops but often lacked desks to hold their computers. Open Works made 863 heavy plywood desks that could be reassembled easily at home.

“The desks were unfinished so the kids could decorate them,” Holman said.

The commercial furniture firm Room & Board contracted with Open Works for a line of wood stools (they could be plant stands) called the Hanneman model. The wood in these stools is repurposed from joists salvaged from rowhouses and other structures that are being demolished.

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More recently Baltimore’s France-Merrick Foundation donated a digital quilting machine to Open Works for fabric artists. Holman predicts it will become a big hit with such artists as well as hobbyist quilters.

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Open Works was founded by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation. Its mission is to be “an incubator for Baltimore’s creative economy.” It’s seen as a rich neighborhood amenity that could help Baltimore’s artisans and engineering college graduates from moving to other cities. Its classes, such as its sewing training program, serve as a form of workforce development.

Holman has researched the history of the neighborhood, which once was something of an industrial park without being called one. A handful of plants and small industrial structures were scattered among the blocks of rowhouses that fan off Greenmount Avenue. The Pennsylvania Railroad (now Amtrak) was also a dominant presence; passenger trains pass by Open Work’s south-facing windows.

At one time, a rail siding from Penn Station allowed freight to be moved to the Open Works building, where drivers and their trucks in turn hauled it to homes and businesses.

Just up the street was the Lord Baltimore Press, Crown Cork and Seal, and Lebow Brothers clothing makers. Today the neighborhood is known for the Copy Cat Building, City Arts Apartments, Area 405, the Guilford Hall Brewery and the Baltimore Design School as well as Green Mount Cemetery.

Holman is looking for more makers to rent studios. Turnover caused by the pandemic shutdown caused Open Works to lose 40% of its studio occupants, who pay $175 monthly for a permanent space. A day pass is $20 and it allows use of the inventory of machines.

“I love the place,” said Jeremiah Jones, a sewn trades professional. ”The opportunity the place creates is a huge community uplift. It brings knowledge and access to our community.”


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