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Baltimore’s West Side Story Revisited

In a great new post on Baltimore Brew, Joan Jacobson and Elizabeth Suman lay out the story of the continuing threats to Baltimore’s historic West Side, an area that has been listed on the Baltimore Heritage Preservation Watch List for nearly 10 years. Among the dozens of irreplaceable buildings still threatened with demolition is the Art Deco styled 1934 Read’s Drug Store, designed by renowned Baltimore architecture firm Smith & May, the same firm that created the iconic Bank of America Building. In January 1955, following a year of negotiations with Read’s, a sit-in demonstration organized by the Baltimore Congress of Racial Equality led to the desegregation of 37 Read’s lunch counters citywide, establishing a enduring association between this downtown corner and the struggle for civil rights in Baltimore and the state of Maryland.

Baltimore’s West Side Story from Baltimore Heritage on Vimeo.

For many, the story of fighting for preservation on Baltimore’s West Side is a familiar one. In 1999, the National Trust for Historic Preservation identified the West Side as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. In the early 2000s, Baltimore Heritage, Preservation Maryland, and West Side Renaissance created Baltimore’s West Side Story, produced by West Side Renaissance director Ronald Kreitner. This documentary screened daily at the historic Senator Theater, introducing audiences to the vital issues at stake in the preservation of historic buildings and small businesses on Baltimore’s West Side. Enjoy the whole 9 minute video to learn more or jump to 1:04 for a special cameo by former Mayor and Governor William Donald Schaefer as a born-again preservationist.

Baltimore Building of the Week: Baltimore’s Columnar Monuments

This week’s Baltimore Building of the Week is not, in fact, a building. Instead, it is three of Baltimore’s notable “Columnar Monuments.” Both the Battle Monument and Mount Vernon’s Washington Monument have also been featured on the Monument City website. Visitors can take a tour of the Shot Tower’s ground floor exhibit, sound and light show, and informational video are available with appointment at 10:30 AM on Saturday or Sunday. The Washington Monument is open for visitors Wednesday to Friday 10 AM to 4 PM and Saturday and Sunday 10 AM to 5 PM up until Memorial Day.

Battle Monument, Image courtesy Jack Breihan
Battle Monument, Image courtesy Jack Breihan

Completed during the 1820s, two of these towering structures established Baltimore’s distinction as “the Monumental City.” Maximilian Godefroy’s Battle Monument, depicted on the City flag, commemorated the Defenders who died beating off the British attack in 1814. It combines Egyptian and Roman themes, including a giant set of fasces. A gigantic Roman Doric column, Robert Mills’ Washington Monument portrays the Father of Our Country, dressed in a toga, performing what its builders considered his most heroic act. (What was it? answer next week!) The contemporary Phoenix Shot Tower was a monument to Baltimore’s growing industrial sector; it manufactured lead shot for the Chesapeake Bay duck-hunting industry.

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Behind the Scenes Tour of the Baltimore Bar Library

A gem within a gem, the historic Baltimore Bar Library sits on the sixth floor of the historic Clarence Mitchell Jr. Courthouse with its barrel vault ceiling and luxurious oak paneling. Please join us for a tour of this fantastic space with three luminary tour guides: retired chief judge Joseph Kaplan, federal judge and Bar Library historian James Schneider, and Bar Library director Joseph Bennett. If you can’t make it out for the tour, you might enjoy this Legal Historian’s Tour of Baltimore from the Thurgood Marshall Law Library at the University of Maryland School of Law.

Image courtesy the Baltimore Bar Library

Tour Information

Cost:    $15 (includes wine and cheese reception)
Date:     Thursday, February 18, 2010
Time:     5:30 to 6:00 p.m. — Wine and Cheese
6:00 to 7:00 p.m. — Tour
Place:    Baltimore Bar Library, within the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse (map)
Park on the Street
Cost:      $15 (includes wine and cheese reception)
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Why the West Side Matters: Read’s Drug Store and Baltimore’s Civil Rights Heritage

Howard & Lexington Streets 1963, BGE Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Industry

One of the West Side’s least well known but most important stories is the history of the former Read’s Drug Store at Howard and Lexington Streets and its landmark role in Baltimore’s civil rights movement. Built in 1934 by Baltimore architects Smith & May, the press heralded this Art Deco structure as a local landmark from its beginning– a modern flagship store for the Read’s chain, continuing their 50-year presence at the bustling heart of the downtown retail district.

Like many downtown commercial establishments in the early 1950s, the Read’s chain maintained a strict policy of racial segregation at their lunch counters. In 1955, a group of Morgan State students came together with the leadership of the recently organized Baltimore Committee on Racial Equality to organize a sit-in protest at the lunch counter of the Read’s Drug Store at Howard and Lexington Streets. They succeeded in this effort, marking this building as a witness to the first successful student-led sit-in protest in Baltimore and defining a powerful model for the more famous lunch-counter sit-in of Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960. This building is currently threatened with total demolition by the proposed development of the Superblock by the Baltimore Development Corporation and Lexington Square Partners. Baltimore Heritage, together with partners and supporters from across the city, is advocating for the city to reconsider this proposal and encourage the preservation and re-use of this essential landmark in Baltimore’s civil rights history.

Former Read's Drug Store, Southwest corner of North Howard Street & West Lexington Street, Superblock

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Baltimore Building of the Week: First Unitarian Church of Baltimore

Returning to religious architecture, this week’s entry in the Baltimore Building of the Week series is the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, the very first building erected for Unitarians in the United States, at the northwest corner of Franklin and Charles Streets. Continue to the end for the answer to the question posed in last week’s post on Baltimore’s Columnar Monuments.

Image courtesy Jack Breihan

If the Basilica is Baltimore’s neoclassical Hagia Sophia, its neoclassical Roman Pantheon stands only a block away. Completed in 1819 to the designs of the French architect Maximilian Godefroy, the First Unitarian Church is a simple cube topped with a hemispherical dome. An arched Roman Doric portico and pediment mark the entrance on Franklin Street (the new prayer garden commemorating Pope John Paul II has opened up the view). Despite its classic simplicity, the dome had notoriously bad acoustics. Eventually a lower plaster vault was constructed beneath it. Baltimore’s other Pantheon is Davidge Hall, the original building of the University of Maryland, at Greene and Lombard Streets.

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