This morning, my colleague Eli and I stopped by the Hebrew Orphan Asylum and took in a welcome sight: construction workers everywhere building a new structure inside the brick walls of the nation’s oldest surviving Jewish orphanage. Work is well underway to turn this once neglected building into a much needed healthcare facility in West Baltimore.
The road to this morning’s busy scene was a long one. Baltimore Heritage first became involved with the Asylum in 2005, nearly fifteen years ago. Today, we wanted to share the story behind the building’s transition. Over the past decade, the building has gone from vacant and slated for demolition to a site of rebuilding and renewal. We hope that a brief recap of the milestones on this journey can provide a little insight into the world of historic preservation and hope for Baltimoreans and others working on their own uphill preservation projects!
Slated for Demolition
In 2005, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum’s owner, Coppin State University, announced plans to tear down the building. The university sought to avoid the continued expense of maintaining the vacant structure and envisioned creating a “south campus” on the site at some undetermined later date. For years, Baltimore Heritage and the Maryland Historical Trust urged CSU officials to preserve and reuse the building rather than demolish it.
In 2010, we nominated the Hebrew Orphan Asylum to the National Register of Historic Places and called for people across the city to support the building’s entry in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “This Place Matters” competition. We didn’t win, but still came in sixth place and made a lot of new friends who cared about this historic landmark. With a change in leadership at CSU and wider public recognition of the building’s significance, the university eventually agreed to hold off on demolition even without a clear plan for what to do next.
Community-Centered Planning and Health
Over the next seven years, we worked with the Coppin Heights Community Development Corporation and residents in the Greater Rosemont community to develop a plan for reusing the building. We secured funding from Preservation Maryland to prepare a new strategic vision for the building’s redevelopment. Armed with a state study showing that the area around the Asylum has the greatest level of health care disparity in Maryland, the community and CDC determined that bringing a medical facility back into the building was an ideal opportunity.
After years of effort, the CDC convinced Coppin State University to sell the building and worked out an agreement for its purchase. This was the first time in recent memory that the University of Maryland system had sold a building, and the transaction required years of significant legal work—with special credit to pro-bono counsel Ballard Spahr. With a Maryland Historical Trust preservation easement protecting the exterior of the building, the CDC became the owners of the Asylum in 2017.
That same year, the CDC took another significant step forward when Behavioral Health System Baltimore and the Baltimore City Health Department committed to lease the entire building for health care use. The first program to go into the building is the new Crisis Stabilization Center—an innovative drug treatment program being introduced to Baltimore. Additional healthcare-related offices and programs are expected to follow.
Financing and the Future
At the same time, Baltimore Heritage worked to apply for state and federal historic tax credits to stabilize and eventually rehab the building. First with Kann Partners Architects and now with Waldon Studio Architects and Southway Builders as partners, we secured several million dollars in historic tax credits that jump started the fundraising process. With historic tax credits in hand, the CDC secured additional contributions from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and the Weinberg Foundation. With help from a local development consultant, Cross Street Partners, the CDC finally secured a bank loan in December 2018 to finance the overall $16 million construction cost.
Construction at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum is now scheduled to finish in 2020 when doors open for the new stabilization center and health care offices. It has taken many partners to go from the brink of demolition to the promising future of today, including everybody who has supported Baltimore Heritage over the last many years. Your membership gifts, ticket purchases for walking tours, and end-of-year giving have allowed us to stick with the Asylum as advocates, community organizers, fundraisers, and partners.
Thank you to all of you who have carried us during our fourteen years of work and helped get us this far. Keep the faith that we will make it to the finish line with the Asylum, and we’ll keep you updated on the first opportunity we can get inside for a Behind the Scenes hard hat tour!