Cool potential for former icehouse

As many times as I have stood on the MARC station platform in West Baltimore, I never considered there was a fantastic, Jules Verne-like interior just across Franklin Street. I assumed the fire-damaged brick building alongside the rail tracks was just another derelict structure. After a visit there this week, I learned that one of Baltimore's fascinating industrial archaeological sites endures in the Midtown Edmondson neighborhood.

The story of this dusty old West Baltimore ice-making and storage plant has been making the rounds of planners and architects. They have been chatting about this very cool building and space that seems to be lifted from something out of director Martin Scorsese's movie "Hugo," the one about the little boy who lives under the roof, in the clock tower, of a 1890s French train terminal.

When I finally got inside the icehouse and walked around its amazing steam-driven wheels marked with the legend "Vilter, Milwaukee," I became a believer in its potential. There were a circular iron staircase, furnaces and their chimneys, and massive sections of pipework. I also thought of the Eiffel Tower and perhaps of the engine room of a Belfast-built steamship. I was amazed that this place had escaped attention for so long.

If it were in a different location, the place might be a stylish setting for Under Armour sales or some overpriced, farm-to-table restaurant or microbrewery.

But it is not, and this economically depressed part of West Baltimore, with its abundance of vacant houses, seems to be crying out for hope and help.

A fire ended the icehouse's economic life in 2004. The structure has been vacant since. Its location never attracted much attention from anyone except intrepid graffiti artists.

Its owner, Washington resident Ilya Alter, gave me a tour this week of his investment. I left the building believing that the old American Ice House clearly lived up to the advance billing about its remarkable antique cooling plant. I don't know the science or the engineering, but I could imagine the machinery here being worked hard to make ice in 100-pound blocks.

Alter told me he came to Baltimore looking to buy property for redevelopment. Real estate brokers told him to look at Southeast Baltimore's waterfront, places such as Canton. He decided to look the other way and began searching West Baltimore. He liked this location, almost alongside the West Baltimore MARC station and on the proposed Red Line light-rail route.

"The time is right to do something with this area," Alter said. "There has to be a catalyst. The icehouse can do for this neighborhood what American Can did for Canton. It takes time. It will happen."

I admired his confidence and vision for what might be called the sidelines of the Franklin-Mulberry corridor. The icehouse was spared demolition in the 1960s when the state and city were going to build a highway because it sat on the north side of Franklin Street. Had it been on the south side, we would not talking about it today.

Indeed, the old stables that quartered the horses that pulled the ice delivery wagons were demolished for the highway. More than 45 years after houses were condemned and the huge hole was dug for a relatively short piece of highway, this road to nowhere continues to divide West Baltimore neighborhoods and curse these communities.

The location at Franklin near Pulaski Street has the attention of transportation planners because the West Baltimore rail station and its free parking have proved so popular with MARC riders. This spring, the parking lot there is being enlarged.

Alter said his plans are tentative and he is merely at the exploratory point. He has hired SMG Architects to start initial measurements on the building.

"It's a piece of industrial America," said architect Walter Schamu. "It would make a wonderful icehouse."

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