Mount Vernon Mill being restored

No matter how many times I passed this Jones Falls Valley landmark, the Mount Vernon Mill seemed ancient, frighteningly off-limits and more than a little mysterious. With its massive brick walls and heavy features, the textile mill was a grim industrial workhouse. I often thought of the hands toiling long at a dangerous job.

Early this year, a veteran Baltimore developer, David Tufaro, and his daughter, Jennifer Nolley, initiated a $40 million restoration-conversion with what promises to be a dazzling piece of environmental design. The mill and its outbuildings are set above a dramatic and deep cut in the stream valley at the southern end of Hampden. On a hot July afternoon, the lush and overgrown hillside and mill complex seemed like Baltimore's industrial version of architect Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater as I walked its remarkable confines.

The conversion project at 3000 Falls Road is a third of the way along. The lead paint and old partitions are gone. It has taken months just to get the place to the point where you can almost envision the apartments, offices and restaurant that will be created here over the next year.

The mill's cast-iron boiler stands exposed, worthy of a furnace on the Titanic. On this visit, I finally got a good look at its square smoke chimney, where thousands of chimney swifts spend a little time on a migration path each September. The chimney, like so many of the component parts of this industrial enclave, has a sculptural beauty. Stone foundations and mellow 19th-century brick make the place seem fortress-like, solid and permanent.

I was not prepared for the way the Jones Falls bisects its industrial campus, imposing its presence. I was also not prepared for the high bridge over the water, connecting the mill in Erector Set-fashion to a former railroad freight shed where cotton bales arrived. The finished product here was cotton duck, or canvas, used in sails.

Mill historian John McGrain told me there was once a flour mill here, the Laurel Mill, and it harnessed the Jones Falls as a means of powering its grinding wheels. But the flour mill was only a dress rehearsal for the mighty Mount Vernon. It too used water power, at least in its early days, and the millrace still runs under the building.

The mill's location is squarely in one of the most untamed and natural parts of the Jones Falls Valley. Nolley told me that each day she walks the place, she sees some new potential. "I am in the discovery period," she said, as she noted her suspicions that the foundations may be older than the buildings they support.

She explained that there would be parking on the lower levels of the structure. Walking through these caverns, I had trouble envisioning this accommodation. I'll return in six months to see how you fit a Ford in these confines. There's a swimming pool planned, too.

Because the Mount Vernon Mill has been approved for the state's program of historic tax credits, 250 windows will be faithfully fabricated, replacing the openings that were once bricked up so that the interior could be better climate-controlled to make synthetic fabric. In later years, after the textile operation ceased, the mill became one part of the sprawling Life Like company, producers of the hobby products used in miniature train gardens.

But on this humid afternoon, it was just possible to envision the waterside restaurant planned for the east bank of the Jones Falls. It was also easy to see why businesses or offices with an environmental mission would want to locate here. We've watched the pull a reclaimed Baltimore harbor possesses. Now it's time for an inaccessible, almost unknown part of the Jones Falls Valley to have its day.

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