THE SPOT WHERE HULL STREET meets the south Baltimore waterfront played an important role in American history, but you'd never know it just by glancing around.
It doesn't have the powerful land mass of Federal Hill, or the well-preserved buildings of Fort McHenry. Not even a plaque to explain its significance.
But what this area lacks in artifacts, it more than compensates for in authenticity. This stretch of Locust Point is the place where nearly 2 million men, women and children from other countries first arrived by boat to the United States from the early 1800s to 1914. That makes it one of the busiest ports of entry in the nation during that period; in some years it was second in volume only to New York's Ellis Island.
After years of relative obscurity, this section of Baltimore's shoreline is about to get long-overdue recognition. At 11:15 a.m. Wednesday, community leaders will break ground for the Baltimore Immigration Memorial and Liberty Garden, a $4.2 million effort to turn nearly an acre of open space into a public attraction and educational resource for people who want to explore their roots.
The nonprofit group behind the project plans to extend the waterfront promenade, create a commemorative sculpture garden that doubles as a public park and build a pavilion where people can learn about the city's role as an immigration center.
The goal is to identify the foot of Hull Street as a portal for generations of immigrants who came to the United States seeking better lives. It's the culmination of a decade-long effort to put this spot of the harbor on the map and the start of an effort to document and preserve the history of Baltimore's many immigrant communities, past and present.
"Close to two million of our forefathers and mothers first set foot on American soil in Baltimore. Yet there is not so much as a single historic marker to commemorate those who chose this place as the gateway to their new life in America," said Ellen von Karajan, president of the Baltimore Immigration Memorial Board.
"We have memorials to so many other things, but nothing to immigration," said Brigitte Fessenden, the group's vice president. As a result, "a lot of people don't realize how many immigrants went through Baltimore's harbor as their first place in the New Land, as it was called. This memorial will not only honor those immigrants who came before us but also today's immigrants, whose dreams and aspirations probably do not differ much from those of their predecessors."
Telling Baltimore's immigration story at this location is difficult because, while the area offers sweeping views of the harbor and the Fells Point historic district across the way, it contains none of the vestiges of the days when most of the immigrants arrived.
Unlike Ellis Island, a public attraction supported by the federal government, the Hull Street corridor has no immigration depot to restore, no well-trod paths for visitors who want to trace their ancestors' footsteps.
What it has is the water itself, and a few of the landmarks that 19th-century travelers might have spotted as they came into the harbor, such as Fort McHenry and Chase's Wharf.
"When you don't have anything physical, it becomes a major challenge," von Karajan said.
In addition, she said, the restorers of Ellis Island "did such a fantastic job of putting it back together and marketing it as the gateway to America that many people don't realize there were other major ports of entry."
To help tell Baltimore's immigration story, the group turned to Alex Castro, a local artist and designer whose work often involves combining the old and the new.
During a recent tour of the site, Castro said he envisions a memorial that will be a place of contemplation and quiet inspiration for anyone who seeks it out.
"This is not a museum," he said. "It's a place to orient oneself to the many places in Baltimore that speak to immigration history and a place to collect oneself, in a quiet way. It's a place to begin to tell the story of where the ships docked, how people took trains to the Midwest, what the city looked like from the water ..."
Ultimately, it's a place about aspiration, he said, since the immigrants who traveled to Baltimore had high hopes for their new lives in America. "We're all human," he said. "That's the one thing we share. We all have aspirations that pull us along."
The Baltimore Immigration Memorial Board was founded by local businessman Ronald Zimmerman, Sr., and its members have been working for more than a decade to establish a physical presence on the waterfront.
They are encouraged by the recent establishment of Europe's first museum of immigration, Auswandererhaus (which is German for Emigration House), in Bremerhaven, Germany. It opened last summer and already has drawn 600,000 people. If that port city can mount a successful memorial to people who left their homelands, Fessenden said, Baltimore should have a successful memorial to those who came to start a new life.
"What Ellis Island is to New York, this memorial should be to Baltimore," she said.
To tell their story, the organizers had to decide on a location where people could gather. For the sake of authenticity, they wanted it to be the near where immigrants first arrived.
For years, Zimmerman tried unsuccessfully to secure a former Baltimore and Ohio Railroad warehouse off Fort Avenue. Pier 9, also known as Immigration Pier, would have been another logical spot because that's where the steamships arrived. But it has largely crumbled into the harbor and its exact location, though near the foot of Hull Street, is off limits to the public.
Undaunted, the group focused on the idea of creating an "immigration walk" with markers bearing stories about the new arrivals and the places they went, such as the fishing pier at the foot of Hull Street or the boarding houses nearby.
The group received support from developer Bill Struever, the head of Struever Bros, Eccles & Rouse. Struever Bros. created the Tide Point office park on the former Procter & Gamble soap factory site. Its eastern edge is Hull Street.
Tide Point's master plan has always called for open spaces and a waterfront promenade as amenities for office workers and the community at large. Struever said he originally envisioned building a restaurant along Hull Street and a sculpture garden nearby.
When the group planning the immigration memorial suggested using part of Tide Point for its project, he agreed to make the land available. Struever Bros. is also contributing $300,000 toward construction.
Struever said he was happy to support the project because its fits in with one of his company's core values -- celebrating history. He said he has at least two ancestors who came to America in the 1800s and first set foot in Baltimore.
"When we bought the property and learned of its history, we were all excited," he said. "We obviously want something special to celebrate the spirit of the waterfront."
Long before he made a commitment to work with the immigration group, Struever had asked Castro to suggest ways to make the eastern edge of Tide Point more of an amenity for office workers and others, without losing its industrial character.
Because Castro was familiar with the area and had already completed one round of improvements, he was a logical choice to lead the design effort for the immigration memorial, Struever said.
"He was the visionary who could see how it could work."
The land consists of a series of terraces that step down from Hull Street to the water's edge. The most unusual features are 21 round concrete disks used to support giant vats that held Procter & Gamble products such as Ivory and Tide. The vats were removed long ago.
Castro said his initial inclination was to impose a sense of geometrical order on the site to unify the disks and other spaces. He chose a spot on the promenade and made that the starting point for his design. From there he drew lines radiating out onto the land, like spokes from the hub of a wheel.
He enlisted sculpture students from the Maryland Institute College of Art to "score" the surface of each disk to add texture and imprint lines corresponding to the ones he had drawn on paper. He also introduced sculptural elements to the site -- a series of concrete balls and cones -- to give a sense of human scale. The balls and cones are placed somewhat randomly around the site, suggesting male and female forms moving up the hill.
Those early changes helped define the east end of Tide Point as a welcoming public space, rather than just a leftover plot of land. It's one of several at Tide Point that people now use for everything from sunbathing to just watching boats sail by.
Castro said he knew the area had taken on a life of its own when he saw a neighborhood group performing Pilates exercises on the scored discs one day. Another time, he saw a man sitting on the steps overlooking the disks, completely absorbed playing his violin.
Phase One of the project, which begins this month, will be an eastward extension of the Tide Point promenade, so it intersects with Hull Street and brings people closer to the underwater remains of Pier 9. It also includes landscaping for Liberty Garden and a reflecting pool with water cascading toward the harbor.
Sepia-toned photo murals will be mounted on the surfaces of five large nearby tanks, known as the Westway Tanks, that are visible from Tide Point and the harbor. Some will depict the faces of people who arrived by ship. Others will be vintage shots of the harbor as new arrivals would have seen it a century ago. For that aspect of the project, Castro is working with Parker Pennington, a designer with the company Xibitz and a consultant to the Immigration Memorial board.
Slaves came through
A later phase will add a small glass pavilion that will contain exhibits about immigration activity. According to historians, Baltimore served as a leading site for the importation of African slaves from 1706 through the early 19th century. After the slave trade was abolished in 1808, Baltimore became one of the largest ports of entry into the United States for Northern and Eastern Europeans.
The pavilion won't be a Williamsburg-style re-creation of any historic building. A scale model in Castro's office shows a one-story building shaped like a parallelogram, faintly suggestive of a nautical form.
"I wouldn't say this is a boat in any way," Castro said, "but I wanted a sense of water and movement. These people came by water. I'm trying to keep it as simple as I can."
The idea, Castro said, is that a tour of the pavilion will give visitors a brief overview of the immigration activity on Locust Point and point them to places where they can obtain more information, such as the Jewish Museum of Maryland, the Baltimore Museum of Industry, the Maryland Historical Society and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture. The group is still raising money for this portion of the project.
From a design standpoint, Castro said, the impact of Baltimore's memorial will come largely from the juxtaposition of the fixed elements on land and the moving vessels in the water beyond.
While Baltimore's memorial will not be as grand or elaborate as Ellis Island, Castro said, he hopes it will give solace to people seeking information about their ancestors -- and perhaps, indirectly, about themselves.
He hopes others will see its value simply as a new public park on the water's edge. It's critical, he says, that all cities have places for people just to collect their thoughts or take in the scenery.
"In a city that's so dense, to find the humble, humble spaces, that's very nurturing," he said. "It's very important."