The landmark Eastern Avenue industrial building fooled me. I assumed it was abandoned, and I was wrong. The former Crown Cork and Seal complex in Greektown is a busy workplace for cabinetmakers, musicians, artists and a craft brewer. It's just that nobody puts up a sign on this curiously anonymous post-industrial survivor.
The place where food- and beverage-packaging machines once were made remains a bustling village. It houses the studios of two Sondheim Award-winning artists, Tony Shore and Laure Drogoul. The shop fittings for a Ralph Lauren store in Greenwich, Conn., were made here; so were similar retailing fixtures for the Barney's stores in New York. People who helped make Barry Levinson's "Avalon" used the sprawling industrial interiors for sets and large props. Components of "The Wire" were stored here in one of its oversized cubbyholes.
The place I encountered (off Fait Avenue) is a 17-acre piece of land shaped like a grand piano and located between two rail lines. There are 27 buildings here, some dating to 1906, when Crown built a power house near Lehigh Street off Eastern Avenue. At its peak, thousands of people worked here in what today seems like a carnival funhouse of oddly interconnected structures.
I met with Eric Spindler, who is a member of the family who owns the Crown complex. He said his grandfather, an architect who worked in Brooklyn, N.Y., bought the place in 1972 from Maryland racing figure and Laurel Park owner John D. Schapiro, who had acquired the campus as part of his Boston Iron Metals scrapping business. Crown left this site in 1959 but remains a presence in Maryland in a newer Baltimore County facility.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the complex became an industrial warehouse park. But as Baltimore lost its manufacturing base, the need for large industrial spaces shrank in Southeast Baltimore.
But smaller spaces at smaller rentals did work. In the 1980s and later, artists, photographers and film industry people began arriving to set up shop in spaces that had been carved out of the cavernous rooms where the bottling and packaging machinery had once been made.
"This is a beehive of activity today," said Spindler. "There is a reason they used to call this Crown City."
He hopes that his industrial complex could be made more accessible should the Red Line light rail be constructed. This could open up a World War I-era building, which despite its castle-like facade, good window openings and square footage, remains closed and hemmed in by adjoining plant buildings.
One source of revenue is inexpensive personal warehouse space, or storage.
"The next place lower in cost is your home garage," said Spindler.
His bookkeeper, John LaFond, offered a rejoinder: "We have a lot of tenants who got put out of their home garages by their wives."
But not everyone wants storage space.
I visited Arnel Fequillo, who came to Baltimore from the Philippines, now has a countertop business, ALF Marble & Granite, in a space overlooking the Norfolk Southern Railroad and the rooftops of Highlandtown.
Not far away, Ryan McGraw, an owner of Revolution Window Systems, has been a tenant for eight years. His firm supplies custom replacement windows for Baltimore landmarks such as the new Baltimore Design School and the old Mount Vernon Mill on Falls Road.
"The flexibility of space allows a small company like us to survive," said McGraw, referring to the ability to lease another part of the complex when a large shipment arrives and a business needs storage.
"I was amazed at how busy it is," said Chris Ryer, an urban planner who is director of the Southeast Community Development Corp. "I once visited an artist friend there on a rainy winter day. We went up fire escapes and explored. It was like exploring Dickensian London. It was quite an experience."