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After years of debate over its future use, former Catonsville Elementary designated as county landmark

The former Catonsville Elementary School, located on Frederick Road.
The former Catonsville Elementary School, located on Frederick Road.(Jon Bleiweis / Catonsville Times File)

The former Catonsville Elementary School on Frederick Road is now a county landmark, reigniting calls from some to convert it to a multipurpose community center.

The designation application was submitted in 2016 intentionally to block any county government action to demolish the building while the Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission evaluated it, said Charlotte Brooks, a Catonsville resident and longtime advocate to repurpose the school for community use. A consultant had recommended that the 111-year-old building be torn down

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The building is currently owned by Baltimore County Public Schools and used daily for meetings, two school programs and by the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks.

Alterations to a building designated as a county landmark must be approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The commission added the school to its preliminary landmarks list in September.

The designation also qualifies the property for certain tax credits should it be renovated.

“There were many in the community who were interested in repurposing [the building] as a community arts and entertainment center,” Brooks told the Baltimore County Council during a public hearing in February. “Those of us strongly in support of this building still strongly feel the same way.”

Asked about the prospect of a future public-private partnership for community members to use the building, school system spokesman Brandon Oland wrote in an email, “We’ll see what the future holds,” but the school system intends to continue its “current plan for the building.”

“We realize there is community interest to use it [in] other ways,” he wrote.

Oland said the school system on a daily basis uses the 57,692-square-foot building, originally built in 1909 as Catonsville High School and converted to an elementary school in 1926, according to Maryland Historical Trust documents.

The school took the place of the Remus Adams Blacksmith Shop, which was owned and operated by a black freeman named Remus Adams before the Civil War, and he used it to train other freemen in the blacksmith trade. The shop was razed in 1909 to make way for Catonsville High.

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ASSET_BARCODE: AEG-469-BS ## DESCRIPTION: Catonsville, Maryland ## EXTENDED_DESCRIPTION: 446 - 9 | ## CAPTION: ## SUMMARY: User Upload Caption: Postcard depicting the Remus Adams Blacksmith Shop. Remus Adams, an African-American free man, owned the shop at 615 Frederick Road before the Civil War. He took it over when his father died and ran it with his brothers. After his brothers moved on, he used the shop to train other free men in the blacksmith trade. The shop was razed in 1909 to make way for Catonsville Elementary School.
ASSET_BARCODE: AEG-469-BS ## DESCRIPTION: Catonsville, Maryland ## EXTENDED_DESCRIPTION: 446 - 9 | ## CAPTION: ## SUMMARY: User Upload Caption: Postcard depicting the Remus Adams Blacksmith Shop. Remus Adams, an African-American free man, owned the shop at 615 Frederick Road before the Civil War. He took it over when his father died and ran it with his brothers. After his brothers moved on, he used the shop to train other free men in the blacksmith trade. The shop was razed in 1909 to make way for Catonsville Elementary School.(Catonsville History Room / Baltimore Sun)

Additions to the school, a building with commanding presence built in Classical Revival architectural style, were constructed in the late 1920s and 1970s, according to Maryland Historical Trust.

For Deana Holler, who has lived in Catonsville for 56 years, the former school’s landmark designation is personal.

Holler and her husband often volunteered in the school when their children attended from 1990 to 1994 and from 1993 to 1997.

“There’s a certain degree of nostalgia I have for the school,” Holler said.

“The other thing to me is, I just enjoy the classic architecture. I think that buildings such as that ... are worth really investing our money in and restoring and making them usable to the public and the community.”

The elementary school was decommissioned in 2016, leaving the building vacant as students were sent to a new elementary school in the remodeled Bloomsbury Community Center, a move that displaced around 100 community programs there, said Catonsville resident Jim Himel.

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The building at 106 Bloomsbury Ave. is shown when it was used as a junior high school. The building was built in 1925 and two wings were added in 1930. Those additions were demolished in 1998 when the building became a community center.
The building at 106 Bloomsbury Ave. is shown when it was used as a junior high school. The building was built in 1925 and two wings were added in 1930. Those additions were demolished in 1998 when the building became a community center.(Photo courtes of Jim Himel)

With the departure of Catonsville’s single community center, residents called for the Frederick Road building to house those programs, and the Baltimore County Arts Guild explored a public-private partnership to maintain space for the arts, recreational activities and housing.

Instead, county officials considered razing the former school to build a new recreation center altogether, citing the estimated $19.4 million price tag for renovations.

The county “had their demolition plan and what they were going to replace it with ready to go,” said Himel, who in 1995 helped form the Catonsville Community Conservation Association and mounted a successful campaign to prevent the destruction of the former Catonsville Elementary at 106 Bloomsbury Ave. by having it designated as a landmark, “which protected it from the wrecking ball,” Himel said.

The county had planned to replace the Frederick Road building with a small community center at a cheaper cost.

With the Frederick Road building, “this really was a deja vu of what the county had tried to do with Bloomsbury,” Himel said.

After much back and forth among community leaders, and county and school system officials over the Frederick Road school, the school system announced in 2018 it would be using the facilities for administrative offices.

Now, the public school system uses the building daily for meetings and training sessions, and houses offices for several departments, including e-learning and Child Find, a special education service that evaluates students from 3 to 21 years old thought to have an educational disability, Oland, of the school system, said.

The gym is also used seasonally by Baltimore County Recreation and Parks for cheerleading, indoor soccer and youth baseball conditioning, and year-round for karate, according to county spokesman Sean Naron.

The athletic fields are used by soccer teams in the fall and for baseball in the spring.

Baltimore County Councilman Tom Quirk, who represents the southwestern community, filed a zoning change request through the county’s 2020 Comprehensive Zoning Map Process to establish a neighborhood commons designation on 6 acres of land surrounding the baseball diamonds behind the former school building to shield the parcel from potential future development.

Properties designated neighborhood commons cannot be developed, regardless of what the underlying zoning allows. County planning staff recommended the change not be approved, but the Baltimore County Council has final say over CZMP changes.

Given the “Catonsville renaissance,” with the proliferation of new businesses like the gourmet grocer 818 Market, reconsidering the building’s use seems appropriate, especially given plans to refurbish the interior of the former Plymouth Wallpaper building by Faidley’s Seafood, Holler said.

“It’s so, so important” to have the building landmarked, Himel said, “because these large public buildings — especially schools — end up being the soul of the community.”

Brooks said she was “cautiously optimistic” about future conversations regarding the school building. Under County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.'s leadership and with Catonsville designated in November as Baltimore County’s first Arts & Entertainment District — and already formally recognized by the state legislature as Music City, Maryland — Himel said he thinks the Democrat’s administration would be open to a dialogue about changing the school’s use.

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“Coming down [Frederick Road], it is the biggest public building in the central business district,” Himel said.

“You want a focal point for the A&E district. Any elected official would want to be able to cut a ribbon and say, ‘This is it; welcome to Music City, Maryland.’”

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