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Baltimore City

Developer plans to breathe new life into old East Baltimore tobacco warehouse as construction hub

A 1906 map of Baltimore marks the property at 1103 N. Washington St. with bold letters: TOBACCO WAREHOUSE.

The roomy old brick complex stands alongside the Amtrak and MARC railroad embankment in East Baltimore and is clearly visible from passing passenger trains. A few steps away was the Biddle Street Station, long decommissioned by the once mighty Pennsylvania Railroad.

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The warehouse in the Middle East neighborhood has been purchased by a partnership of Cross Street Partners and BECS Investing. The structure sits in a spot that a decade ago might not have seen this $7.5 million investment.

“The building clearly once had a relationship with the railroad,” said Carla Hinson, development manager for Cross Street Partners. “We are looking to begin renovation work this spring and we’d like to create a hub for construction, engineering and architects here in East Baltimore.”

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Upper Washington Street is a happening place nowadays. The renovated American Brewery is up Gay Street. The old Hoen Lithography plant, also being redeveloped by a team including Cross Street Partners, sitting across the railroad tracks and the Pump House campus at Wolfe Street are staging a nice recovery. Dozens of nearby rowhouses have been thoroughly renovated as well.

Old Baltimore buildings have stories to tell. This particular tobacco warehouse was the creation of a trio of German immigrant brothers, Charles, Louis and Frederick Becker. Louis was born aboard the steamer Louisa as she crossed the Atlantic bound for Baltimore. He attended the old St. James the Less School just a few blocks west of his warehouse.

The Becker Brothers were one of those amazing success stories. They arrived here as tobacco merchants and began making cigars in Baltimore and in Martinsburg, West Virginia, then branched into wholesaling leaf tobacco and operated out of what is now the Power Plant Live! section of the Inner Harbor.

They really struck it rich when then moved into the wholesale fruit trade and bought a large tract in the Shenandoah Valley. In addition to peaches, apricots, plums and apples, they discovered valuable mineral deposits there, The Sun reported. The Beckers shipped ore and limestone to Pittsburgh steel mills.

The Sun once described their orchard as “one of the largest fruit farms this side of California.”

Charles Becker, the brother who took the lead in the fruit business, also raised grapes and had hopes of somehow making sparkling wine. This did not happened and he settled for West Virginia brandy.

The brothers gave up on tobacco after the 1904 Baltimore Fire wiped out their main business operation on Exchange Place.

Charles Becker died in 1907, the last of the brothers, and is buried near his warehouse in Green Mount Cemetery.

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The warehouse the Beckers owned saw numerous subsequent owners and uses, including a stationary firm, furniture maker, mattress factory, and artist and maker studios.

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After a thorough renovation is completed, the Building Envelope Consultants and Scientists will be merging their operations into a corporate headquarters here. The commodious building also could house other tenants.

The project was awarded $1.75 million under the Maryland Historic Revitalization Tax Credit Program. Other local projects that got the tax credits include the Wilkins Rogers Mill (also known as the Doughnut Factory) near Ellicott City and the Eastern Health District/Huntington Williams Building at 620 N. Caroline St., not far from the tobacco warehouse.

“It has been a continuous used warehouse since it was built in 1875,” said Jeff Levy, who first started working at the warehouse in 1972, shortly after he left military service in the Navy.

“I worked for Cadden Furniture and we refinished the desks for the City Council when City Hall was rebuilt when William Donald Schaefer was mayor,” said Levy, who went on to purchase the structure in 1997 and sold it late last year.

Bill Struever, the rescuer of industrial Baltimore and a principal at Cross Street Partners, walked through the warehouse and came upon an unexpected treasure, a maple-floored roller rink on the third floor.

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Among the warehouse’s many uses, it once functioned as the Washington Roller Skate Rink.

Struever promises a skating party when the rehabilitation is completed.


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