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City spending board approves sale of West Baltimore’s Upton Mansion to Afro Charities

Baltimore’s spending board has approved the sale of the historic Upton Mansion to a charity group affiliated with The Afro newspaper, which will revitalize the structure for its new headquarters.

The five-member Board of Estimates voted at its Wednesday meeting to approve the land disposition agreement with The Upton Mansion Inc. for $221,855.

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The vacant building had an appraised value of $300,000, but the city reduced the price due to its poor condition, according to the board’s agenda. The agenda also highlighted the “special benefit” the project will provide for the community, as it is expected to eliminate blight and increase economic development in West Baltimore.

The city tapped the Afro and its philanthropic arm to redevelop the mansion in February 2020, following a request for proposals the year before. It is the last surviving Greek Revival country house in Baltimore.

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The facility will include offices for the newspaper’s journalists and executives, as well as space for its archives, classrooms, theaters, a fitness area and exhibition rooms. It also will include parking.

The Afro, the longest-running Black, family-owned newspaper in the country, had its first offices in Upton. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the staff worked out of offices in Halethorpe.

Lisa R. Hodges-Hiken, the project’s development consultant and a principal with Hodges Development, said site work has begun, including an archaeological study with Morgan State University and the University of Maryland to ensure no artifacts are disrupted or damaged. So far, nothing has been recovered on the grounds, she said in an email.

The historic Upton Mansion sits vacant in 2014 in West Baltimore.
The historic Upton Mansion sits vacant in 2014 in West Baltimore. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Before the mansion was built in 1838 as the “country home” of Baltimore attorney David Stewart, who later served briefly as a U.S. senator, the property served as quarters to enslaved African Americans. The mansion later became the headquarters for Baltimore’s first radio station — WCAO-AM, licensed in 1922 — and the Baltimore Institute of Musical Arts, an African American conservatory.

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The city school system occupied the building from 1957 to 2006. It fell into disrepair after the school system moved out. In 2009, Maryland Magazine and Preservation Maryland deemed the structure among the most endangered buildings in the state.

Upton has been highlighted as a funding priority for the city. It’s an area that features fine architecture as well as an active Black community and a storied history.

State officials designated much of Upton and neighboring areas in 2019 as part of Maryland’s first Black Arts & Entertainment District. That means the area qualifies for tax breaks to help draw creatives, businesses and other resources to invest there and ease the crime and blight associated with the once-bustling Pennsylvania Avenue.

The area is also home to P.S. 103, the late U.S. Supreme Court justice and civil rights legend Thurgood Marshall’s boyhood school. That structure and its neighborhood are being studied by the National Park Service for inclusion in the park system.

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