Maryland is moving forward with a multimillion-dollar plan to demolish buildings at the old Baltimore city jail, notorious for its terrible conditions and being overrun by a gang.
Some of the oldest and most recognizable buildings will remain standing due to their historic and architectural value. Still, some city preservationists say they are dismayed by Gov. Larry Hogan’s determination to knock down so much of the former jail.
Hogan is scheduled to hold an event Thursday at the closed jail to discuss those plans. The state has signed a $27 million contract with a Parkville company to demolish dozens of structures at the jail site, which is sandwiched between East Madison and East Eager streets.
The jail began its life in the early 1800s as the Maryland Penitentiary and has been owned by the state since 1991. Like other Maryland jails, it housed a mix of detainees awaiting trial and inmates serving short sentences.
Spread over several aging buildings, the jail evolved into a dangerous facility where criminal activity thrived. By 2013, the notorious Black Guerrilla Family gang was effectively running the complex, according to prosecutors who won convictions of dozens of inmates and correctional officers.
Hogan ordered it closed in 2015 and moved its nearly 1,100 detainees to other correctional facilities. “The Baltimore City Detention Center is a disgrace, and its conditions are horrendous,” he said at the time. The Republican governor pledged to demolish the jail and replace it with a “therapeutic” facility that would treat inmates and detainees for addiction disorders.
The jail is part of a correctional complex east of downtown Baltimore in the shadow of the Jones Falls Expressway that includes the Central Booking and Intake Facility, among others. Though some of the oldest buildings from the original Maryland Penitentiary have long since been demolished, several buildings constructed in the late 1800s remain, including the granite, tower-like Administration Building on East Eager Street whose slanted roof is visible for miles.
Plans call for the stone tower to remain intact. But most of a long wing with similar architecture extending out from the tower that once housed inmates, known as the “west wing,” is to be demolished. The state plans to keep 72 feet of that wing.
Both the tower and the remaining portion of the wing will be used for “administration purposes” and for operations associated with the nearby Metropolitan Transition Center, a maximum security pretrial prison, according to the state’s plans.
On the other side of the campus, on East Madison Street, the state also will preserve — at least for now — a castle-like former Warden’s House that’s now used for offices.
If the state moves forward with Hogan’s proposed therapeutic facility, the state would consider options for the Warden’s House, including demolishing it, renovating it or relocating it, according to state documents.
Some in the local preservation community are concerned whether the right buildings are being preserved and how the state made its decisions.
The Maryland Historical Trust, which approved aspects of the demolition plan affecting the historic buildings, declined to make officials available for comment.
The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services did not respond to questions about the project.
Johns W. Hopkins, executive director of the nonprofit Baltimore Heritage, said the state should have drawn up different options for the campus, including evaluating the possibility of leaving buildings intact and reusing them. He said the state is making a mistake by moving forward without even knowing the scope of the therapeutic jail project.
“It’s demolish first and plan second,” Hopkins said.
Klaus Philipsen, a local architect who writes about preservation issues, also criticized the planning process for the demolition as deficient.
“They have not shown designs that shows how the jail would be designed. Without that, one cannot see how necessary it is to demolish anything,” Philipsen said.
Despite the property’s troublesome history, preservationists say many of the buildings are worth preserving.
In its early days in the 1800s, the old Maryland Penitentiary housed runaway slaves and whites and blacks who had helped slaves escape. They were brought through the warden’s house and processed there, Hopkins said.
The Warden’s House is one of Baltimore’s only remaining links to the region’s history with slavery, and should be preserved, he said.
“It’s an important part of Baltimore’s history. It’s a very ugly part of our history, but it is one that we need to continue to understand and learn about,” Hopkins said. “To be able to go and physically see and touch and visit it is so important.”
The Warden’s House is a Baltimore City Landmark, but that status does not protect the building from demolition, because it’s on state property, Hopkins said.
On the other side of the complex, the soaring tower and west wing, built in 1899, are an example of the “Romanesque Revival aesthetic,” according to documents filed with the Maryland Historical Trust.
Built from granite quarried at Port Deposit near the Susquehanna River, the tower and wing are imposing structures.
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The wing is set to be demolished, though some believe it could be reused. The cell block within the wing is actually a separate structure that could be removed to leave a long, open building. The Maryland Historical Trust has described it as a “prison within a prison” in documents.
Kelly Cross, a resident of the city’s Old Goucher neighborhood who is planning to run for the City Council, had asked the state to delay the demolition.
He told members of the state’s Board of Public Works this summer that he hoped to explore ways to redevelop the site with something other than a jail.
“Its location in the center of the city” Cross said then, “sends out a symbolic message that crime and imprisonment are the defining features of the city.”
After his remarks, the board voted to approve the demolition contract.
Demolishing the old jail and building a new one “just represents the height of myopia and lack of vision,” Cross said in an interview.
“Why are we continuing to view the center of our city as a place to dump all of the state’s problems?"