Nearly three years ago, I stood with neighborhood residents and preservationists before what looked like an abandoned and very sad West Baltimore brick castle. Below its remarkable towers and stout walls on Rayner Avenue, I thought that this venerable old orphanage would not make it another year. Clearly at the end of its days, it seemed ready to fall from its embankment and hit the street.
It was vacant, lacking a good roof and was lightly boarded. It is owned by Coppin State University. The old orphanage was itself an orphan property stranded blocks to the south of the university's main campus between North Avenue and Gwynns Falls. Rayner Avenue, a secondary street in West Baltimore, is not a familiar address.
Despite all this, the structure's cheering squad persevered, put adversity behind them and made a good argument. They said that as the oldest remaining Jewish orphanage building in the country, it deserved another chance. And while it may take a sizable investment to save the place, this landmark has Victorian grandeur, weight and substance. It's not conventionally beautiful, but there is no mistaking the good intentions behind its creation. It's my kind of building.
Johns W. Hopkins, director of Baltimore Heritage, broke into a wide smile when he said, "Five years ago this project was a dream, and now it's quickly on the way to becoming a reality." He told how Maryland's Department of Housing and Community Development has granted $100,000 to the neighborhood's Coppin Heights Community Development Corp. to stabilize the fragile building.
"Not only does stabilization address the building's severely compromised roof, but it also allows architects and engineers to work safely inside to assess conditions and complete redevelopment plans," he said on a windy day this week.
He also explained that the Coppin Heights group received $10 million in state and federal funding thanks to favorable tax credits. He called the tax credit windfall a piece of "great progress" that will make the children's home an amazing asset to West Baltimore's Greater Rosemont and its component neighborhoods.
The fate of the former Hebrew Orphan Asylum (it became West Baltimore General Hospital and then Lutheran Hospital) seemed to be looking favorable, he said, but then they got better when Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown announced last week that West Baltimore, including the area around the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, will be designated one of five new Health Enterprise Zones. Hopkins said this program "opens up new incentives for providing medical care to residents in underserved neighborhoods."
When restored, plans call for the building to be used as a neighborhood medical center.
Deborah Weiner, research historian at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in East Baltimore, says the orphanage is "one of the few surviving 19th-century buildings constructed by Baltimore's Jewish community."
She said the orphanage was founded by German Jewish immigrants "who wanted to serve poor and orphaned Jewish children. Businessman William Rayner donated the land and a building in 1873, and when it burned a year later, the Jewish community raised the money to build a new orphanage on the location." Research shows it was designed by Edward Lupus and Henry A. Roby. They chose a Romanesque style, and their building had room for 100 children.
"Most of the children who lived there were the sons and daughters of new arrivals from Europe," she said. "While the German Jews had prospered, by and large, many of the new immigrants lived only one illness or job loss away from destitution. Like other 19th-century orphanages, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum served mostly half-orphans, who had lost one parent while the other parent was unable to cope. Most children stayed at the orphanage for four to five years."
I spoke with Wendy Blair, a consultant for Coppin Heights. "Our vision is clear, to restore the orphanage with uses for health care and healthy living in an area that is underserved," she said.
"People do not know about it because it's out of the way," Weiner said. "But after the synagogues on Lloyd Street, I would say it is the second-most important Jewish historical site in Baltimore."