The 1833 McKim Free School building is one of Baltimore’s most important landmarks with deep roots in the city’s history and an unsurpassed 175 year record of education and social service. Founder John McKim came to Baltimore as a young man, established his business at Baltimore and Gay Street and became a successful merchant. During the War of 1812, McKim gave $50,000 to the City of Baltimore to aid in its defense, served as a State Senator, and was twice elected to Congress. His son William McKim who led the effort to realize his father’s vision of a free school did not live to see it as he died in 1834 at the age of 35. The building’s architects have deep connections to Baltimore. Son of Baltimore Revolutionary War hero John Eager Howard, William Howard was one of the first engineers to work for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and took up architecture as an avocation. William Small designed the Barnum’s City Hotel (demolished in 1889), the Archbishop’s Residence on North Charles Street, and more schools across the city.
Since 1945, the McKim Center has continued to strengthen the importance of the building to many Baltimore residents as it remains a vital institution serving children and adults in need in the Jonestown community in innumerable ways. The McKim Center has its beginnings in 1924 when the Society of Friends offered the McKim Free School as a place of worship to an Italian Presbyterian congregation. This partnership between the Friends and Presbyterians led in 1945 to the start of the McKim Community Association offering youth programs, athletic training (particularly wrestling– appropriate for a Greek Revival building) and a Bible School. McKim’s renowned athletic programs have long outgrown the building but the structure remains in use, along with the nearby 1781 Old Quaker Meeting House, as a safe place for children managed by the philosophy of “Structure, Discipline and Love.”
No one understands the how the McKim Center matters to the community more than the Center’s executive director Dwight Warren. Warren grew up in public housing a few blocks from the building and feels that his introduction to the school’s athletic programs offered him an escape from the challenges of growing up in an urban neighborhood. This year will make 50 years since Warren first arrived at McKim and he recently reflected on the building’s importance as a symbol of caring, generous assistance–“Much of that symbolic strength is derived from the massive stone walls, columns, lintels, pediment, and other features that are now at risk, caused by age, wear, and the elements. Cracking, spilling, water damage, and general deterioration threaten to accelerate these processes if not checked by repair and replacement.”
Even as they continue their essential mission of serving the community in many ways, the McKim Center recognizes the urgency and importance of stabilizing and restoring their building and ensuring another 175 years of service to the people of Baltimore. The building was recently listed on the 2011 list of Maryland’s Most Endangered historic places and the Center is working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation Maryland, and Baltimore Heritage to find new ways to organize support for this unique Baltimore building and institution.