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Welcome to the Friends of West Baltimore Squares

The Friends of West Baltimore Squares is a new organization dedicated to the celebration of West Baltimore’s unique historic squares and parks through events, outreach and advocacy. Launched in February 2011 by Baltimore Heritage in partnership with the Parks & People Foundation, the Watershed 263 Council and neighborhood leaders in Franklin Square, Harlem Park, Lafayette Square, Perkins Square and Union Square, our goal is to support the expanded use and appreciation of historic parks, connect West Baltimore residents and leaders interested in urban greening and historic preservation, and offer fun new ways to explore West Baltimore neighborhoods.

Please stay connected with our new effort by visiting the Friends of West Baltimore Squares website, connecting with us on Facebook, and following us on Twitter. If you are a resident of West Baltimore, interested in supporting the Friends of West Baltimore Squares as a volunteer, or interested in attending any of our fun upcoming events, please sign up for our e-mail list and keep an eye on our calendar. We have also started a small discussion list for anyone who’d like to contribute their own ideas to the project.

Finally, we invite everyone to join us for our inaugural West Baltimore Squares Spring Walk and Celebration on the evening of Saturday, April 30. We’ll walk from Union Square to Lafayette Square through five great historic parks ending with a celebration at Lafayette Square with light refreshments & music starting at 7:00 PM followed by a movie screening at 7:30 PM. We hope you can join us on April 30 for the start of this new exciting effort!

Civil War Archeology in Lafayette Square

The markings of Baltimore’s Civil War heritage are all around us, from downtown landmarks like President Street Station, to military buttons, ceramic ware, and bits of metal of every variety that lie literally under our feet. To help commemorate the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War this year, please join Baltimore Heritage and the Friends of West Baltimore Squares on July 9 as we dig into the history of Civil War-era Baltimore with an archeological investigation in Lafayette Square. We’re not sure what we’ll find under the topsoil, but we do know that the Square was the site of Lafayette Barracks during the civil war, a military camp and hospital that housed 1000 people strong. With support from the Archaeological Society of Maryland, the Maryland Historical Trust, and the local community, we are conducting an archaeological investigation of Lafayette Barracks, the military camp and hospital located in the park during the Civil War. Please stop by to talk to the archeologists, learn about urban archeology, and West Baltimore’s Civil War history. Throughout the afternoon, we will be offering walking tours, exhibits on the architectural history of the Square, and even grilled hotdogs!

Civil War Archeology in Lafayette Square

Saturday, July 9, 2011
Lafayette Square Park (West Lafayette Avenue & North Arlington Street)
11:00 AM to 3:00 PM
Tours, talks, and exhibits throughout the day and hotdogs at noon. On-street parking available. to look up directions, use 1100 W. Lafayette Avenue, Baltimore 21217.
RSVP Today!

From 1861 through 1865, as the United States were split by civil war, Lafayette Square in West Baltimore became a bustling military encampment and a rich scene of Baltimore’s Civil War life. Originally known as Camp Hoffman–named for Henry W. Hoffman, collector for the Port of Baltimore–the camp housed at least five Maryland Union regiments as well as troops from New York and other northern states. The Camp, including a hospital, sutler’s store, kitchen and parade grounds, served as a rendezvous point for Maryland and Delaware Union troops with as many as to 1,000 soldiers preparing for active duty at a time. In the blocks around the camp, one could find military bands marching down to Jarvis Hospital on Baltimore Street, drunken brawls at local bars between soldiers and civilians, deserters escaping through Druid Hill Park shot down by cavalrymen, and escaped slaves from the Eastern Shore taking refuge with Union troops before seeking freedom to the north. John Scharf, Baltimore’s foremost historian during the late 19th century, described Lafayette Square in 1865 as “filled with ugly wooden sheds, swarming with rough troops, while not one of the elegant mansions now surrounding it had been reared.”

Our archaeological investigation, led by archeologists Brandon Bies, MAA and Dr. David Gadsby, seeks to learn more about people who lived and worked at Lafayette Barracks during the Civil War by searching for any artifacts or surviving physical evidence that they left behind. With a dozen trained volunteers, our team will use metal detectors to search out metal artifacts, such as buttons or bullets, and open up a small area of excavation to search for the remains of Camp Hoffman. Stop by on July 9 to learn more about West Baltimore’s Civil War history and the process of historical archeology. We’ll be leading short walking tours every hour, sharing exhibits on the history and community of Lafayette Square, and hosting the Baltimore Civil War Museum with exhibits on archeology at President Street Station. Please RSVP if you’re planning to join us! Questions? Contact Eli Pousson at pousson@baltimoreheritage.org or 301-204-3337.

West Baltimore Walks at the 2011 ROOTS Festival

This weekend the 2011 ROOTS Festival comes to the Highway to Nowhere in West Baltimore, and we are leading neighborhood walking tours as part of it. Please join us if you can. The festival is a series of music, arts and community events, some outdoor and some indoor, starting at Franklin and North Gilmor Streets (just west of Martin Luther King Boulevard). As part of our continuing work with the Friends of West Baltimore Squares partnership, we’ll be at the festival both Saturday & Sunday, June 25-26, sharing information on upcoming programs and offering a series of West Baltimore Walks through the historic parks and innovative new gardens to the north and south of the Highway to Nowhere.

Baltimore Heritage at the Alternate ROOTS Festival

Saturday & Sunday, June 25-26
West Baltimore Walks at 11:00 am, 1:00 pm, & 3:00 pm
RSVP today!

Meet at the corner of Franklin and Carey Streets at the festival.

The one-hour walking tours, led by Baltimore Heritage’s Eli Pousson, start from the “Community Bridge” at the corner of Franklin & Carey Streets. They will go through Harlem Park & Lafayette Square exploring schoolyard gardens and soaring historic churches, and through Franklin Square & Union Square stopping by the H.L. Mencken House and innovative vacant lot projects on Brice and Carey Streets.

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Civil War 150: West Baltimore’s Civil War History by Bike — Rescheduled

Many people know that President Street Station has its roots in the Civil War, but few know that Civil War history can be found throughout the city, including many sites in West Baltimore. In fact, West Baltimore neighborhoods served a central role in the conflict– housing Union troops on their south to fight, caring for injured soldiers, and witnessing the many ways in which the conflict on the battlefield came home to the city 150 years ago. As the home to the B&O Railroad, West Baltimore supported the movement of troops by train (a key advantage for the Union) and protected the city from invasion by Confederate troops through a ring of camps, hospitals and fortifications in Carroll Park, on Baltimore Street, in Lafayette Square and more.

West Baltimore’s Civil War History by Bike

Update: Due to today’s rainy and snowy weather, we have rescheduled our tour to Saturday, November 5, 10:00 am. Please contact Eli Pousson at pousson@baltimoreheritage.org or 301-204-3337 with any questions or concerns.

October 29, 2011, 10:00 am to 11:30 am
$10 for members & non-members, RSVP today!

This 90-minute bicycle tour starts and ends at the Mt. Clare Museum House rolling past rowhouses, parks, stables, and shops, scores of historic places grand and modest, where people lived and worked during the Civil War and its aftermath. We’ll learn about Confederate spies at Waverly Terrace in Franklin Square, take a look at the historic artifacts we recently dug up from the site of Lafayette Barracks, and trace the lives of immigrant workers who built the trains, bridges, and more that the Union military depended on at the Irish Shrine at Lemmon Street and the B&O Railroad Roundhouse. Please join us as we pedal through the history of the Civil War in West Baltimore and commemorate this nation-shaping event of 150 years ago.

Thanks to the support of Free Fall Baltimore at the end of the tour participants are welcome to take a free tour of the Mt. Clare Museum House. Mount Clare is a 1760 colonial Georgian home built by Charles Carroll and Maryland’s oldest house museum.

Connect with the Friends of West Baltimore Squares to learn more about heritage and community greening programs in West Baltimore neighborhoods!

West Baltimore Squares – Remembering the Celestial Ceiling of the Harlem Theatre

Thanks to Baltimore Heritage intern Elise Hoffman for researching and writing this post on the history of the Harlem Theatre. This post is cross-posted from the Friends of West Baltimore Squares blog.

The Harlem Theatre, now known as the Harlem Park Community Baptist Church, is a local landmark on the western edge of Harlem Park– one of the city’s most extravagant African American movie theaters with a unique “celestial ceiling” featuring “twinkling electrical stars and projected clouds.” Built in 1902 as the home for the Harlem Park Methodist Episcopal Church, after they out grew their previous building, the structure still retains its ornamental Romanesque style with arched doors and windows made of rough blocks of Port Deposit granite.

Image courtesy the Maryland Historical Society, B1617

Harlem Park Methodist Episcopal Church did not remain in the area long however. After the building opened in 1903, two destructive fires — in December of 1908 followed by an even more severe fire in 1924 — led the congregation to sell the building and move out to a new church at Harlem and Warwick Avenues at the western edge of the developing city. At the same time the neighborhood began to transition from a largely segregated white to a predominantly black community, a change that almost certainly influenced the white congregation. In 1928, the congregation sold the church to Emanuel M. Davidove and Harry H. Goldberg, owners of the new Fidelity Amusement Corporation, established to build “a 1,500 seat motion picture theatre for Negroes…to be known as Harlem Theatre.”

The company hired architect Theodore Wells Pietsch, a notable Baltimore architect who also designed Eastern High School and the Broadway Pier. Pietsch took the property’s history into consideration when designing the new building: the theatre was made fireproof through the use of steel and concrete, and a fire extinguishing system was also included in the building’s design. Pietsh’s new design had an elaborate Spanish Mission theme described at the time as one of most elaborate designs on the East Coast and promoted as “the best illuminated building in Baltimore.” The bright façade included a 65-foot marquee with 900 50-watt light bulbs illuminating sidewalk underneath, “tremendous electric signs” around the marquee, and a forty-foot tall sign that could be seen from two miles away.

In October 1932, the owners organized a celebration to open the theater “in a blaze of glory” drawing jubilant crowds of 5,000 to 8,000 people. The jubilant scene was described by a journalist:

“The blazing marquee studded with a thousand lights made the entire square take a semblance of Broadway glamour. The marquees illuminated the entire Harlem Square which was crowded with those who lined the sidewalk unable to gain admittance.”

Over the next forty years, countless numbers of Baltimore residents enjoyed the theatre’s “cavernous three-story high ceiling, a balcony, carpeted floors and thick cushioned seats” and “celestial ceiling with twinkling electrical stars and projected clouds that floated over movie-goers’ heads.” The Harlem Theatre also hosted events supporting the broader community, such as a free “Movie Jamboree” in 1968 for the children of Baltimore workers donated by the theatre’s then-manager Edward Grot, and midnight shows to raise money for the local YMCA. Unfortunately for the Harlem, as movie theatres that previously discriminated against black customers began to desegregate in the mid 20th century, their business declined. By the mid-1970s, the Harlem Theatre had closed.

The building took on a new life in 1975 when Reverend Raymond Kelley, Jr. purchased the old theater and turned it into the Harlem Park Community Baptist Church dedicated on July 6, 1975. The building has been refurbished– the congregation traded in the old theater seats for pews and removed the large marquee–but much of the original historic character remains intact. Of course, the story of the Harlem Theatre also remains in the  memories of thousands of Baltimore residents and we hope you can share your stories with us in the comments.

Do you want to share your photos or stories of West Baltimore landmarks? Please get in touch with Eli Pousson at pousson@baltimoreheritage.org or 301-204-337.

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