I went in search of a place recently named the Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District and found myself inside one of its most prominent addresses. But like so many places in Baltimore where artists live and work, you have to be introduced or know a password, as if it were some sort of an arts speakeasy.
I gained entry to the H&H; Building, which is fabled among Baltimore's arts community, but except for the outdoors and military surplus store on the ground floor, is all but unknown to the rest of us.
H&H;, which stands for Harold and Howard, the guys who founded the camping gear business decades ago, is located at Eutaw and Franklin streets. The Bromo Seltzer Tower is indeed visible down the street, but the H&H; Building seems more a part of quaint Seton Hill. The neighborhood's best-known commercial landmark might be the Trinacria Italian grocery, but it's really only a quick walk from the Central Enoch Pratt Free Library, too.
Perhaps resident artist Alex Ebstein said it best: "This building is its own community, its own neighborhood."
She showed me a gallery space within H&H; that she and her partner, Seth Adelsberger, are preparing for a show. They call it Nudashank. The artists were busy these days.
"We have people in New York who follow us," said Adelsberger, who will have a show of his own colorful works next year at the Baltimore Museum of Art. "We sold to a collector in Berlin and shipped the piece to him. About 65 percent of the works we sell go outside Baltimore and Washington."
We talked about Baltimore's other large arts residence, the Copy Cat Building in Station North on Guilford Avenue. Ebstein said the difference between the two is that the Copy Cat attracts younger artists, often recent graduates of the Maryland Institute, College of Art, while H&H; has somewhat older artists who have established themselves.
"It wasn't always this nice," said Dustin Carlson, who has lived for 17 years at H&H.; "It was once a mix of warehouse and shanty."
Carlson is a sculptor but makes a living creating installations for some of Baltimore's traditional museums. He recently completed the display stands for installations for the Maryland Historical Society's current Elizabeth "Betsy" Patterson Bonaparte show.
"My museum exhibit-making work is sort of like doing the calisthenics for my sculpture work," he said.
Baltimore's big arts award, the Sondheim Prize, will be announced July 13. Because the Baltimore Museum of Art is being renovated, the winning entries will be shown at the Walters Art Museum, only a short walk from the H&H; Building. Epstein said many of the traditional afterparties will be held at H&H.;
I also noticed that there's a music event this weekend at the Howard Street building that artists have claimed. They call it Coward Shoe after a once well-known Howard Street shop.
I met with Barker French, whose father, Jay French, bought the H&H; Building about a dozen years ago. The Frenches, who also own and manage other properties, secured the proper zoning and other requirements so that artists may live in H&H;, which has a nontraditional rent structure.
The artists each rent one of its four, 9,000-square-foot floors (the size of three or four good-sized homes) and have set up their studios; they sublease spaces to other artists. Some also live here and share each floor's communal kitchen and bath.
H&H; is a large five-story building constructed for Baltimore's garment industry nearly 90 years ago. The place is solid and, Barker French told me, has a new boiler and windows. He considered putting up a mural or something to show the creativity housed here, but he said the artists vetoed the idea.
"They prefer to work quietly," he said.