Written by Erica Stewart
As someone whose job involves a significant amount of writing, my work gets infinitely easier when I trade the confines of my desk (and the bounds my imagination) for the actual streets and buildings where historic preservation meets the road. So I jumped at the chance to join a tour of historic rehabilitation projects in Baltimore, a city where the National Trust's Community Revitalization department and its for-profit subsidiary, NTCIC, have a long and rich history of involvement. It was a stimulating day spent among preservationists and development professionals, full of photo ops and personal stories from the field that are pure manna for a desk jockey like me.
The afternoon tour took us past some of the city's toniest streets as well as sidewalk scenes straight out of HBO's crime drama, The Wire. I had the chance to witness a diverse range of project types -- from a world-class performing arts space, to services for the city's neediest -- stages of completion, and socio-economic context.
The first stop on the tour was lunch at the Tremont Grand (an amazing adaptive reuse story) and the main course was a discussion of tax credits, specifically the Maryland state historic tax credit. The message that stayed with me much longer than the chocolate torte served for dessert was that the Maryland credit has done more than any other economic development tool to revive large chunks of Baltimore city.
The credit, which is available for both owner-occupied residences and for commercial buildings, made the economics work for homeowners rehabbing homes in neighborhoods that offered proximity to parks and public transportation but that had been mothballed for oh, a few decades. The tax incentive helped homebuyers update existing homes in a historically-sensitive fashion, serving to retain the city's older housing stock and ensuring its role in the city's rebirth. The commercial use of the credit, meanwhile, helped developers finance the reuse of the city's great industrial, office, and mixed-use buildings, bringing a wave of jobs and neighborhood-serving businesses to residents. These amenities, housed in evocative historic buildings, helped attract additional residents to the city, creating a powerful positive feedback loop that helped reverse Baltimore's population decline for the first time in a decade.
Historic preservation is not necessarily as easy as I make it sound. The example of the MacGillivray's Building in Mt. Vernon neighborhood demonstrates that preservation is not for the faint of heart. A local surface parking lot magnate had designs on a 19th century former drug store that was showing its age. When the building came up for auction, local residents knew the Second Empire building with the Mansard roof was in danger. Pooling their personal resources, the concerned citizens won the auction with white knuckles and partnered with a CDC to rescue the building, rehab it and return it to prominence. Today the building anchors a key corner in Mt. Vernon, with a high-end wine store on the ground floor and upper floor residences. The building's success paved the way for additional historic rehab work in the adjacent buildings. One of our tour guides, Mr. Charlie Duff, won hearty laughter when he suggested that for Mt. Vernon residents, ensuring the health of their neighborhood was as simple and tasty as drinking more wine!
The bus rolled on through the West Side of Baltimore where we glimpsed the show-stopping Hippodrome Theatre, a huge revitalization success story that transformed a former motion picture theatre into a live performing arts venue that helped fuel the turnaround of that part of town. We next traveled east to the Federal Hill neighborhood, where the Main Street® revitalization methodology has flourished. This district offers the charm and character lacking in the touristy Inner Harbor development and has ample indie businesses and historic storefronts to prove its claim of being "historically hip."
From there we left the beaten path and ventured to East Baltimore where the revitalization gains are hard-won and awe-inspiring. Nonprofit sponsors have turned aging commercial buildings into fountains of energy and optimism in a part of town that suffers from high crime, poverty and blight. No transformation is more captivating than the one at the former American Brewery brewhouse. Here the catalytic potential of preservation-based development is on full display. This Victorian-style five story building and tower once housed one of the tallest-gravity-operated breweries in North America.
Shifting economies and demographics stole the life from the brewery and the vitality of the Broadway East neighborhood, resulting in a community that has a 51% poverty rate and unemployment that is four times the national average. After several redevelopment strategies were proposed and failed, the American Brewery building finally shed its "white elephant" status thanks to the determination of Humanim, Inc., a social services organization in search of a larger home for its 220 employees, and a base for reaching communities exactly like Broadway East. The interior pays homage to its brewery beginnings: pieces of the brewery tanks remain, the grain chute is visible through Plexiglas and salvaged window glass adorns the lobby floor. The surrounding neighborhood has a long way to go to remake its image, but with the rehabilitated American Brewery building now a reality, anything seems possible.
By the time we finished touring the impressive building, the sun was setting in the west and it was time to find a way back to DC, a literal world away. As I sat stuck in Beltway traffic, I marveled at the preservation successes I had seen, at the raw charm and character of a city that is so different from Washington and at the obvious challenges that still face Baltimore. But one thought stood out, and that was that historic preservation seems to be a core ethic at the heart of the city's identity, and because of that, Baltimore isn't likely to lose what makes it, well, Baltimore.
Erica Stewart is the outreach coordinator for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Community Revitalization Program.