You smell damp masonry as you approach the old factory atop the Jones Falls Valley just above downtown Baltimore. The restoration and conversion of the old Lebow Brothers garment manufacturing plant into a new $25 million Baltimore Design School is now five months in the making. Open to the elements since the mid-1980s, it still reeks of abandonment. But that changes by the day.
It's a remarkable project in a lightly visited section of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District and the part of Baltimore known as Greenmount West. By March 2013, what had been an industrial eyesore at Oliver and Barclay streets will be turned over to the city's Department of Education as a new high school housed in a venerable industrial landmark.
This is a project I've been watching. The Baltimore Sun once praised the factory as "a palace of industry" when it was being constructed between 1915 and 1916 as the Crown Cork and Seal Co.'s machine shops. Much was made of its birth — an early steel and reinforced-concrete plant that emphasized the use of natural light (hence all those windows) — and its citywide views. It also featured a primitive version of air conditioning that used water-cooled ventilation. News reports said its inspiration was a Detroit auto factory. Its rooftop water tank remains visible from the northbound lanes of the Jones Falls Expressway.
Crown Cork left the site nearly 60 years ago, and the building wound up being owned by prominent attorney, savvy investor and philanthropist Zanvyl Krieger, who had an interest in Gunther's beer and the Orioles franchise, among other things.
He leased it to the Lebow family, whose workers made men's suits sold at Saks, Barney's and Nieman-Marcus.
The building was then owned by Abraham Zion, a New Yorker who padlocked the place in 1985 during a garment industry labor dispute. And it remained closed. Moldering men's suits and raincoats sat on racks until late last year. The pressing and sewing machines and cutting tables rusted. There were thousands of loose buttons and spools of thread. Grass and weeds sprouted in the joints of the maple floors.
The transformation of the site into a school is a collaboration among the Seawall Development Co., the Baltimore school system and the Baltimore Design School. The developers salvaged many of the old machines housed here and plan to display them when the school reopens.
"It's a unique private-public partnership," said Jon Constable, a Seawall Development project manager. "Because this is a fashion design school, it is poignant we saved the sewing machines. The fact the building was a pioneer in the use of reinforced concrete, it lends itself to an architecture school. Plus it is in the heart of the arts district and the Maryland Institute College of Art."
I stood on the building's roof (it was once used as a recreation area for the building's female employees) and spotted landmarks including the Key Bridge and the Roland Water Tower. Green Mount Cemetery is about a city block away.
From that vantage point, the change enveloping the crisscross of thoroughfares between nearby Greenmount Avenue and Calvert Street was obvious and encouraging.
I spoke with Brian Hartsell, the superintendent of the construction firm Southway Builders, as we stood on the school's roof. He pointed out the new Lillian Jones Apartments at Greenmount and Hoffman, as well as the conversion of Homewood House, a former school on Homewood Avenue. I looked at how another school, Mother Seton Academy, is now flourishing beside St. Ann's Church on 22nd Street.
The paint still seemed wet on a small block of renovated rowhouses on Oliver Street adjacent to residences at the City Arts building.
I thought of how, only a few years ago, the Lebow Building was a favorite destination for urban explorers and photographers who savored its dank interior and weird hopelessness. Its loading dock off Latrobe Street was used for filming scenes in the fourth season of "The Wire," which focused on Baltimore schools. The plan is to make that loading dock into a stage for fashion shows.