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Baltimore's Courthouse East, the former main post office and federal courthouse.
Baltimore's Courthouse East, the former main post office and federal courthouse. (Christopher T. Assaf / Baltimore Sun)

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young has proposed naming a building with plenty of stories to tell after the late Rep. Elijah E. Cummings.

The limestone structure at 111 N. Calvert St., known today as Courthouse East, opened to public use in May 1932 after two years of construction. The Baltimore Sun’s news accounts said that the combined main post office and federal courthouse had its own rifle and pistol range for the benefit of armed federal employees. The old firing range had been near the furnace of the previous courthouse. Federal agents had test fired their arms into an old coal bin.

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The building became Baltimore’s main federal government presence. Here were the offices of the Army Corps of Engineers, the Marine Corps and the War Department. Violators of the Volstead Act, or national Prohibition, got hauled in here for liquor violations.

It was not a secret, but the 1932 post office was constructed with a tunnel that ran under Calvert Street to Lexington. This cavity was constructed under the roadway and its streetcar tracks (paved over about 1947) so that cash and securities could be moved without notice to and from the old Federal Reserve System’s Baltimore branch bank at the northwest corner of Calvert and Lexington streets.

A Sun article described the tunnel as “heavily walled and over seven feet wide.” A special elevator to a subbasement opened to the tunnel, which carried annual hauls of $6 million in coin and paper money to the Federal Reserve Bank’s vault.

As Baltimore’s federal courthouse from 1932 to 1975, the building housed plenty of high courtroom drama.

Alger Hiss, the Baltimore-born State Department official, sued Time Magazine writer Whittaker Chambers for libel in here. The Hiss-Chambers legal case was a complicated and hotly debated legal scenario in the Cold War involving allegations of spying and a roll of microfilm hidden in a pumpkin patch at a New Windsor farm.

As the Vietnam War ignited antiwar protests in the 1960s, the case of Philip Berrigan and the Catonsville Nine boiled over at 111 N. Calvert St. Anti-Vietnam War protesters packed the courtrooms in the October 1968 federal trial in the courtroom of Judge Roszel Thomsen. Attorney William Kunstler defended the nine while U.S. attorney Stephen Sachs argued the federal government’s side. The antiwar activists were found guilty of destruction of U.S. property.

The Catonsville Nine trial was national news, but there was more to come with bigger names.

On a fall afternoon in 1973, reporters and photographers gathered along the courthouse’s Lexington Street side nearly opposite the popular Bee Hive restaurant. Spiro T. Agnew, the U.S. vice president, resigned his office after a lengthy investigation of his bribe-taking.

“The federal investigation of Agnew took place in the U.S. Attorney’s office in that building. The grand jury had met there as well,” said Russell T. Baker Jr., who served as U.S. attorney for Maryland from 1978 to 1981.

Baker also recalled that 111 N. Calvert St. was busy in the 1970s as attorneys, press and television, photographers and reporters packed the courthouse for the corruption trials of former Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson and the first trial of Gov. Marvin Mandel.

“It all took place in that building," Baker said.

The federal government turned the structure over to the city of Baltimore in the middle 1970s when a new federal courthouse opened on West Lombard Street.

The Circuit Court for Baltimore City moved in. And it was here that Mayor Sheila Dixon left office as Baltimore’s first woman mayor. On Dec. 1, 2009, a jury returned a guilty verdict on a count of fraudulent misappropriation. Dixon resigned as mayor as part of a plea agreement.

The drama continued with the case of Adnan Masud Syed in the murder trial of Hae Min Lee in Leakin Park — a case featured in the popular “Serial” podcast. And more recently, the Baltimore police officers involved in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in custody appeared at 111 N. Calvert St.

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