While leaving a press event at the old Hebrew Orphan Asylum last week, I considered some of the other abandoned buildings I was passing in West Baltimore. Somehow the old orphanage never collapsed or caught fire. It was fortunate. It's also not alone in its abandonment.
Later that dry and windy day, some big circa-1870s Baltimore houses caught fire. Houses on North Calhoun Street and others close by on North Carey Street were filled with flames that firefighters had a time controlling. The Fire Department, hit by budget closures, was hard-pressed to battle everything it had on its hands. Mutual aid to fill vacant Baltimore stations was provided by units from the surrounding counties. Two engines and a truck also came up from Washington, a situation that in all my years of fire watching I've never experienced. Fire trucks from D.C. coming to Baltimore? Sounds like something out of the great Baltimore Fire of 1904.
That day I traveled east along Lafayette Avenue. I looked at the empty Sellers Mansion at Lanvale and Arlington, and the Upton Mansion at 811 W. Lanvale. They are the kinds of gorgeous buildings that make you gulp and wince. How could something so potentially wonderful be so vacant and empty? The economic conditions of the past few years have battered real estate values and hammered places like West Baltimore, which was just holding on before the mortgage bubble burst.
But then, as I reached Eutaw Place, the picture changed. Lafayette Avenue emerges as a dazzling example of urban preservation at Madison Avenue and in Bolton Hill. This transformation was not easy. It took years of painstaking rebuilding, money and lots of preservation patience, but the neighborhoods here show that it is possible to accommodate and use these soaring 19th-century urban palaces.
I mention all this because West Baltimore, the area around Lafayette Square, is one of Baltimore's most neglected, seemingly doomed areas. Nearly a year ago, I watched the bidding stall and then die at the home once owned by Rep. Parren J. Mitchell. It had all the bells and trumpets of the high Victorian urban mansion, the soaring gilt mirrors and filigreed plaster ceiling medallions. The house at 828 N. Carrollton Ave. had been one of the grandest addresses overlooking Lafayette Square. That day, no one wanted to make a bid acceptable to its owner.
The home overlooks Lafayette Square's trees, walkways and churches. In the 1930s and 1940s, it was Baltimore's most fashionable address for the African-American community. Prominent black religious congregations were also located on or near the square. Many of their congregants return for weekend services, but they reside elsewhere.
It will take a lot of work to bring back long stretches of Lanvale and Lafayette. But there were visionaries in Baltimore who brought back other neighborhoods at times when cities were held to be in more trouble than we seem to be in today. After all, four years ago, I would have given up the American Brewery in East Baltimore as left for dead. It seemed to be lost, abandoned, collapsing in parts — a situation far more worrisome than anything in West Baltimore. Today the brewery is a showplace. I have to remind myself that Baltimore is not Detroit.