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A chill descends as 1928 warehouse falls

More than a year has passed since Baltimoreans last saw a high-rise building near downtown demolished the old-fashioned way, with a 4-ton wrecking ball rather than explosives.

It has been even longer since a high-profile demolition drew no opposition from local preservationists or community activists.

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That's the case with a 1928 cold food storage warehouse that's being razed this month to make way for an expansion of Maryland's correctional facilities in East Baltimore.

For several weeks now, the windowless brick building at Monument and Graves streets has been slowly disappearing, in sight of thousands driving by on the nearby Jones Falls Expressway. And while no one has attempted to halt the demolition, the way preservationists fought the razing of the Rochambeau apartments on Charles Street, that doesn't mean the building lacks historical significance.

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In its time, the 11-story warehouse was one of the most important structures in the city - a pioneer in the refrigerated storage of frozen foods for a growing city. One might say it was Baltimore's refrigerator.

One might also say it helped foster the glory years of the Baltimore Orioles in the 1960s and '70s.

Its construction marked the beginning of the Merchants Terminal Corp., a business run by the Hoffberger family, which went on to gain controlling interests in the National Brewing Co., the Baltimore Orioles (from 1954 to 1979) and Pompeian Olive Oil, among other enterprises, and is still growing today. Last month, it announced plans to construct a $25 million food distribution warehouse on part of the former General Motors van assembly property in southeast Baltimore - a modern version of the Monument Street facility.

"It was a great building," said Harry Halpert, the 41-year-old president of Merchants Terminal Corp. He's also a great-great-great-grandson of Sarah and Charles Hoffberger, the matriarch and patriarch of the Hoffberger family that came to America in the late 1800s and settled in East Baltimore.

"It fed everybody around town. It fed our family. A lot of people know that building."

Although Merchants Terminal Corp. ceased operations on Monument Street in 1989 because the building was functionally obsolete, in many ways it was the starting point for a five-generation family business that remains based in Baltimore and now employs more than 120 people.

"At the time, 1928, the Monument Street building served as a catalyst and focal point for the Hoffberger family and the people its businesses employed," Halpert said.

The building was significant as a feat of engineering, too. It was one of the first in Baltimore designed and constructed to store foods that needed refrigeration, from hams and turkeys to butter, cheese and ice cream. Users includes Esskay Meats, Mash's Hams, Smithfield Hams, Dover Poultry Co., Southern Seafood and Good Humor Ice Cream. Alex Brown and Sons issued the bonds for construction. Railroad tracks ran up Monument Street to allow deliveries by train. Baltimore's first school lunch program was run out of that building, as was the U.S. Government's surplus cheese and butter programs.

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The building was a utilitarian, reinforced-concrete structure with thick, closely spaced columns, brick exterior walls and little ornamentation. It was cooled by an ammonia-based refrigeration system whose ceiling coils kept the interior temperature at minus-2 or minus-3 degrees Fahrenheit, and could cool some areas to minus-30 degrees. According to family documents, it was built to be "the warehouse of the future."

When the building was constructed, "there were not many cold-storage facilities in the country," Halpert said. "The first one was for Birdseye (in New York), to freeze their vegetables. The use of ammonia refrigerant in such a large space was very unusual."

On Monument Street, the building's outer walls and columns were lined with cork for insulation, and it had three elevators to carry food to the upper floors. Goods were stacked by hand for the first several decades; after that, workers used forklift trucks to move food. About 20 people worked inside the building, and they had to dress warmly throughout the year.

"It was like walking onto Lambeau Field on January 5," Halpert recalls.

Besides storing food on the upper levels, the building contained the offices of the C. Hoffberger Co., which sold heating oil. Customers from around the city would come in to pay bills and place orders.

The Hoffberger family's business strategy was largely to address the community's heating and cooling needs, so the Monument Street building represented both sides of the operation, said Peter Hoffberger, a great-grandson of Charles Hoffberger and director of Hoffberger Holdings Inc., the parent of Merchants Terminal Corp. "It was an early success story."

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Although the refrigeration system held up well into the 1980s, the elevators began to break down, and that prompted the company to build other facilities. It has since expanded with operations in Jessup, Landover, Highlandtown and New Castle, Del.

The Monument Street building was sold in the 1990s to a restaurant supplies distributor who used the lower levels for several years. It was recently acquired by the state, which operates other correctional facilities in the area and intends to use the land to build a detention center for juveniles who are treated as adults. The fact that the building's neighbors include prisons, parking lots, a strip club and a soup kitchen probably contributed to the fact that there wasn't much constituency for saving it.

According to state officials and others, engineers looked into the idea of recycling the building, since it was such a fortress. But they eventually determined it would be too expensive to retrofit and decided to clear the site to make way for new construction. The Berg Corp. and a subcontractor began demolition last month, with a 185-foot-tall crane and wrecking ball chipping away first on the north and west sides of the building, working toward the south and east sides. The work is expected to take several more weeks to complete.

Halpert said it was sheer coincidence that the old building began disappearing just as Merchants Terminal Corp. finalized its plans to build a new food-storage facility at the former GM site. Scheduled to open next July, it will also contain office space for Merchants Terminal Corp and Hoffberger Holdings. In many ways, Halpert said, it will mark a return to the days when the Monument Street building was both a warehouse operation and headquarters for the family's operations.

"It's ironic that the old building that represented the beginnings of our family's business is coming down just as we're expanding," Halpert said. "We see it as a rebirth. It's a pretty good omen."

There may be a larger lesson behind this change in the urban landscape.

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No one fought to protect this building, perhaps because of where it is and what it looked like and what was commonly known about it. It wasn't on any landmark list or part of any historic district. Even the former owners say they aren't particularly sad that it's coming down. And perhaps it couldn't have been saved.

But what the history of this building points out is that one can't always judge a building by its surface details, or its surroundings. In a city as steeped in history as Baltimore, even buildings that may not initially seem to be significant, sometimes turn out to be. That may be worth thinking about, before the wrecking ball swings again.

ed.gunts@baltsun.com



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