Lane K. Berk, a civil rights and social justice activist who was also a patron of the arts, dies

Lane K. Berk, a civil rights and social justice activist and a supporter of the arts who won the legal battle to display a 10-foot-tall orange pylon spelling B-A-L-T-I-M-O-R-E on the roof of her Federal Hill home, died Tuesday at that home of heart failure.

She was 89.


“She was one of Baltimore’s great characters, who had boundless energy — more than anyone I’ve ever known,” said former state Sen. Julian L. “Jack” Lapides of Bolton Hill.

“I loved her, and she didn’t give up easily on any issue in which she was involved,” Mr. Lapides said. “She was a tough, unique and determined individualist and will be very much missed.”


“Lane Berk was one of the most intense, complex, wonderful, and at times frustrating individuals I’ve ever known,” said Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum.

“She was passionate about so many things in life. She was a true blessing,” Ms. Hoffberger said. “She loved young creative people, and she pulled them around her. Lane Berk was certainly one of a kind.”

“She was one of a kind, and they broke the mold when she was born,” said her daughter, Jennifer Berk, an artist who lives in Mount Washington. “She was a character, a presence, a force of nature, intelligent, brilliant, and she accomplished a lot of things.”

Jim Burger, a Baltimore photographer and writer, got to know Mrs. Berk through the Creative Alliance and art openings.

“I hear the term ‘living legend’ batted around all the time, but Lane truly was one. I’m sorry she’s gone,” said Mr. Burger, a Remington resident. “I always enjoyed talking to her at art openings, and it was an honor to be in the presence of someone who stood with giants.”

The daughter of Benjamin Kolker, owner of the Maryland Lumber Co., and Miriam Kolker, a homemaker, Lane Kolker was born in Baltimore and lived in a rowhouse overlooking Druid Park Lake Drive.

“She was kind of a black sheep in her family. She was the youngest of five siblings, and when she was 5 years old, had decided that she was going to go to public schools, as her siblings had all gone to private schools,” her daughter said. “She certainly marched to her own drummer.”

Mrs. Berk was a graduate of the old Robert E. Lee School No. 49 on Cathedral Street and, in 1946, of Western High School. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Bryn Mawr College and a master’s degree from Cambridge University in England.


“She loved Bryn Mawr and never stopped talking about Cambridge,” her daughter said.

Mrs. Berk worked in public relations for the Joseph Katz Co., a Baltimore advertising agency, and in 1952 married Dr. Bernard R. Berk, a Mount Vernon facial reconstruction surgeon and orthodontologist.

The couple lived at Berlane Farm on Greenspring Avenue beginning in 1952. Her husband died in 1983, and in the early 1990s, she moved to East Montgomery Street in Federal Hill.

Mrs. Berk’s activism went back decades. In 1962, she was appointed to the Maryland Advisory Committee to the United States Civil Rights Commission, an independent fact-finding agency created by Congress in 1957.

She was also named an arbitrator in 1963 for the Maryland Commission on Interracial Problems and Relations, whose job in the early 1960s was persuading hotel and restaurant owners to end racial discrimination and support the state’s public accommodations law.

She told The Baltimore Sun in a 1964 article that field investigation was necessary because of “subtle acts of discrimination against minorities, some of them extremely childish.”


Mrs. Berk’s modus operandi was not about punishment but changing attitudes.

“We are not worried about yesterday,” she told the newspaper. “Most of us did things yesterday which we consider illegal or immoral today. Rather than slap his wrist, we simply ask him to come along into tomorrow.”

While living at Berlane Farm, Mrs. Berk and her husband hosted Cesar Chavez, the American farm labor leader and civil rights activist, and his entourage when they came to Maryland in 1969 to support the cause of migrant farm workers and the related grape and lettuce boycott.

“I think they stayed with us for about a week. I remember Chavez sitting at our dining room table with us. He was a nice man,” her daughter said.

“Another time she housed the Maryland Ballet in the barn and they did a ‘Ballet Under the Stars’ performance for us,” Ms. Berk said.


In 1976, Mrs. Berk led a successful campaign opposing Dr. Edgar Berman, a contiguous neighbor, who wanted to subdivide his 50-acre Chestnut Ridge property to build 27 houses.

While living in Baltimore County, she was a member of the Alliance of Baltimore County Community Councils.

After moving to Federal Hill, Mrs. Berk continued to wage battles against developers and neighbors who opposed her placing an orange decorative pylon modeled after the one on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway on the roof of her Federal Hill home in 1992.

The debate centered on whether the pylon was art. In the end, the city zoning board voted 4-0 in her favor.

In 1996, Mrs. Berk led another successful battle to save the smokestacks on the former Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. Pier 4 Power Plant.

The next year, she went to war again, when the Cordish Cos., which was developing the former generating station into a $30 million entertainment complex, proposed placing up to 25,000 square feet of signs on the structure.


“High-tech is good. High-tack is not,” Mrs. Berk told The Baltimore Sun at the time. “This is so tacky I can’t believe it. I think Disneyland should be someplace else.”

In the end, Baltimore’s Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals approved the Cordish Cos.’ request.

An adventurous woman with insatiable curiosity and a love of world travel, she took her entire family in the 1960s to Africa, India, Iran, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

When Mrs. Berk was 71, she joined the Peace Corps and was sent to a South African town, where she worked on local development projects for three years.

In recognition of her work, Mrs. Berk was given an African name meaning “Mother of the Community.”

Mrs. Berk’s cultural interests were numerous. She and her husband collected art and traveled to Africa, where they purchased pieces for their collection.


She was a founding member of Center Stage and Theatre Project and a supporter of the Maryland Ballet Company and the American Visionary Art Museum.

“She was a benefactor in more than money, as she was one of our original connectors and was probably responsible for bringing in more people into the Theatre Project,” said Philip Arnoult, who founded the theater in 1971.

“She had unbounded curiosity and energy, and was very special to me. She was so smart and a great woman of the world,” said Mr. Arnoult, who lives in the Belvedere Square neighborhood of North Baltimore. “She'd walk into the theater and could really absorb a performance. She’d then stay around to talk to the artists and could do it on multiple levels.”

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“Name anything, and Lane was part of it,” said Livia Vanaver, who with her husband, Bill Vanaver, founded the Vanaver Caravan, which performs music and dance worldwide.

“She was filled with such exuberance and generosity, and we became lifelong friends. Whenever we played Baltimore, we always stayed with her,” said Ms. Vanaver, who lives in Rosendale, N.Y.

The Baltimore Black and Jewish Coalition named Mrs. Berk its Person of the Year in 2002.


Mrs. Berk was an active member of the Baltimore Ethical Society and the Kol HaLev Synagogue.

Services are private.

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by two sons, Konrad Berk of Owings Mills and Geoffrey Berk of Northeast Baltimore; and five grandchildren.