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A new use for West Baltimore's historic Hebrew Orphanage

The Rosemont and Coppin Heights neighborhoods scored a preservation victory this week. Construction crews will soon begin long-anticipated restoration work on the old Hebrew Orphanage Asylum, which has an impressive history of social and medical service to these neighborhoods.

After a $17 million reworking, the building will leased by the City of Baltimore and be at least partially used as a drug treatment center.

Johns W. Hopkins Jr., director of Baltimore Heritage, compared the castle-like orphanage to another Baltimore landmark of the same era — the American Brewery. He said they were both unusual buildings of memorable architecture.

“The orphanage is definitely the American Brewery of West Baltimore,” he said. “It is such a signature building. It sits on a hill. And over the last 100-plus years it has played an essential role in West Baltimore.”

The orphanage served a previous immigrant crisis in the late 1800s. Families were arriving in Baltimore from Russia, Poland and Lithuania after the Civil War. The leaders of Baltimore’s philanthropic community found that they needed to do something about orphans and children whose parents could not afford their care.

William S. Rayner, president of the Hebrew Benevolent Society, stepped up and acquired the old Calverton estate and set up the orphanage in what had been an almshouse. When the first building burned after a few years, he launched the construction of a new building, built in 1875-1876.

Rayner, who was born in Germany’s Bavaria, was a savvy investor in Baltimore land and businesses. He owned tracts in Curtis Bay and Brooklyn and fostered their industrial development in shipping, rail and factory construction. He also owned stock in Baltimore’s streetcar system, including the old Guilford Avenue elevated line. At his death in 1899, The Sun estimated his worth at what would amount to $27 million today.

The orphanage was dedicated Oct. 22, 1876, by Maryland Gov. John Lee Carroll and Baltimore Mayor Ferdinand C. Latrobe. Rabbi Benjamin Szold presided at the ceremony, attended by the Gutman, Straus, Hutzler, Burgunder and Friedenwald families. Its beds were soon filled to capacity.

In 1923, the orphanage moved to Belvedere Avenue, and the campus was turned over to the newly organized West Baltimore General Hospital. As its evolution continued it became Lutheran Hospital and served the neighborhood’s needs — it expanded several times — until 1989.

“The building is well known in West Baltimore,” Baltimore Heritage’s Hopkins said. “Pretty much when you talk to anyone in this community, they were born there or had a friend who was. It has enjoyed all sorts of community connections over the years.”

Part of the Lutheran Hospital campus became Tuerk House, a facility on Ashburton Street that helps those dealing with substance abuse. Other hospital structures were demolished, but the old orphanage remained.

Baltimore Heritage began an advocacy campaign for the orphanage about 15 years ago and worked alongside the Coppin Heights Community Development Corp., which is undertaking the current preservation effort. The orphanage was once owned by Coppin State University and stood vacant for many years. Officials recognized the former orphanage’s history and architectural worth and secured its roof and walls with a temporary structural support system.

When Rayner, who founded the orphanage, died March 1, 1899, at his home at 1123 Madison Ave., he was attended by the Johns Hopkins physician Dr. William Osler.

The Sun’s account of his funeral said the funeral would be held at the Har Sinai Temple at Wilson and Bolton streets.

“There will be no honorary pallbearers,” The Sun reported. “As Mr. Rayner requested some time before his death, boys from the Hebrew Orphan Asylum will act in that capacity.”

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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