Join Baltimore Heritage & the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture on the evening of February 9 for “Preserving Baltimore’s Civil Rights Heritage,” a panel discussion and public forum from 7:00 to 8:30 PM moderated & hosted by Dr. David Terry, executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. Our panelists include Dr. Gabriel Tenabe (Morgan State University) on restoring the home of long-time Baltimore NAACP President Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson, Ms. Tanya Bowers (National Trust for Historic Preservation) on the proposed National Civil Rights Heritage Trail, and Mr. Bill Pencek on the adaptive reuse of PS 103. Finally, we’ll hear the story of the Read’s Drug Store sit-in from Dr. Helena Hicks who, as a freshman at Morgan State in 1955, participated in Baltimore’s first successful sit-in protest at Read’s— a building that is currently threatened with demolition by the development of the “Superblock.”
Preserving Baltimore’s Civil Rights Heritage
The Reginald F. Lewis Museum, 830 E. Pratt Street, Baltimore, MD 21202
Wednesday, February 9, 7:00 PM to 8:30 PM Free, RSVP today!
Parking for museum visitors is located across the street at the Dodge PMI Garage at 815 E. Pratt St. $6 validated parking is available. Transit options include MTA Bus 10 via President Street, Charm City Circulator Orange Route Stop 201, & the Shot Tower/Market Place Subway Station.
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.
One of the most significant challenges on the West Side over the past decade has been the preservation and redevelopment of the “Superblock” bounded by Lexington, Fayette, Liberty and Howard streets. These few blocks include a diverse collection of 19th and 20th century historic buildings reflecting the West Side’s past as a thriving center of downtown retail. Among the many contributing buildings within the West Side’s Market Center Historic District are the 1929 Brager-Gutman Building, the 1938 Art Deco Kresge’s Department Store, and the 1934 Read’s Drug Store to name only a few. In 2001, Baltimore City and the State of Maryland established a preservation agreement (known as the Memorandum of Agreement or MOA) that gave the Maryland Historical Trust the authority to review development proposals on the West Side. By 2003, the Baltimore Development Corporation began soliciting bids on the development of the Superblock, then selected Lexington Square Partners as the developer for the area bounded by Howard, Lexington, Park, and Fayette Streets.
Since 2004, Lexington Square Partners has submitted at least five plans for the redevelopment of the site to the Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) and each time MHT has concluded that the plans do not meet the required preservation standards (Baltimore Brew covered this issue in February 2010). The most recent proposal this past November requires the partial or total demolition of 14 of 17 contributing historic buildings in the area, including the complete demolition of 9 structures, the demolition of all but facades on 5, and the full preservation of only 3 historic buildings. Despite this failure to support the preservation principles created to guide the revitalization of the West Side, just yesterday BDC received a 6-month extension to their agreement with Lexington Square Partners from the Baltimore Board of Estimates.
This is not an abstract debate between the relative merits of historic preservation and economic development. Rather, we are dedicated to successfully joining both agendas, recognizing the potential of the West Side’s historic buildings to contribute to the renewed vitality of Baltimore’s downtown. For example, the former Reads Drug Store at the corner of Lexington and Howard Streets (proposed for demolition in current plans) holds a important place in the city’s history as the site of an early sit-in protest against segregated lunch counters. Built in 1934 on the 300th anniversary of the founding of Maryland, the store features several architectural details on a Maryland theme with panels of sailing ships on the outside. At the bustling corner of Lexington Street and Howard Street, the store served as the flagship location of the Read’s chain located at the heart of Downtown. The building is perhaps most historically significant, however, for its role as a witness to Baltimore’s Civil Rights Movement. On January 20, 1955, Dean McQuay Kiah of Morgan State University, along with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and a group of Morgan students staged a sit-in at this location to protest the racial segregation of Read’s lunch counters. The sit-in led to the desegregation of the entire Read’s chain throughout the region and helped provide a model that guided later and better known student-led sit-ins in places like Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960. These exceptional and irreplaceable buildings contribute to the rich architectural heritage of the West Side and should be seen clearly not as barriers but as assets to continued development.
A panel from the Urban Land Institute that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake engaged around the redevelopment of downtown’s “West Side” recently delivered preliminary recommendations (more from the Baltimore Sun). As the area continues to be in the spotlight and we continue working towards a renewed and revitalized West Side, we thought it would be helpful to provide a short recap of how redevelopment plans that have evolved from early proposals calling for widespread demolition to current plans based on both preservation and redevelopment.
The “West Side” of Baltimore’s downtown is an area roughly bounded by Pratt Street (south), Read Street (north), Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard (west), and Liberty Street/Charles Center (east). From the late 1700s through the 1940s, the West Side grew as a vital center of transportation, commerce, and cultural life. This growth first began with Lexington Market in 1782–a place that inspired Ralph Waldo Emerson to declare Baltimore the “Gastronomical Center of the Universe”– and continued in the early 20th century with the construction of dozens of premiere department stores and movie theaters that many Baltimoreans still remember fondly. Unfortunately, in the late 20th century retail shopping and investment drifted out to Baltimore’s suburbs, many of these businesses closed, and their buildings began to decay from neglect.
After years of decline, Baltimore City proposed a plan in the 1990s that took an old-fashioned urban renewal approach to redevelopment and threatened to demolish 150 or more historic buildings (See Baltimore City Council Ordinance 98-333, 1998). In response, Baltimore Heritage and our partner Preservation Maryland developed a preservation based strategy for the revitalization of the West Side (PDF). This strategy proposed focusing new construction on existing vacant lots, rehabbing existing buildings for new uses, and reducing the number of historic buildings slated for demolition. In 1999, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Baltimore’s West Side on its annual list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in recognition of the threat to one of the best collections of historic buildings in any downtown. In 2000, the National Register of Historic Places listed the West Side as the Market Center Historic District designating hundreds of West Side buildings as significant historic structures.
In 2001 with strong encouragement state legislature, Baltimore City adopted a new preservation-based strategic plan (PDF) and signed an agreement with the Maryland Historical Trust laying out a process for preserving historic buildings and moving forward with revitalization. Many of us celebrated the agreement, which has been in effect in the decade since and continues to guide development today. This agreements supported the rejuvenation of nearly 50 historic buildings, including the rehab of the former Stewart’s Department Store as Catholic Relief Services, the Hippodrome Theatre’s transformation into the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, and the reuse of a handsome retail block on Franklin Street as St. James Place. These projects and many more reflect hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private investment with substantial support from state and federal historic tax credits. However, the real challenge is that redevelopment has taken much longer than envisioned and much of the area, including the Superblock along Lexington Street east of Lexington Market and the Howard Street corridor, is still characterized by vacant buildings and limited street life.
Most recently, Mayor Rawlings-Blake convened a panel from the Urban Land Institute to provide recommendations to jump-start a new phase of revitalization on the West Side. The ULI panel provided preliminary recommendations on December 10, 2010 and final written recommendations from the ULI panel are due to the Mayor in the spring. In one of their most important points, the panel highlighted the West Side’s historic buildings as the area’s greatest asset. Baltimore Heritage is dedicated to supporting a process that can reestablish the West Side as a great Baltimore neighborhood with a distinctive historic character and thriving street life that can attract residents and businesses from across the city and the nation. Our series continues next week with a discussion on the “Superblock” and how historic Lexington Street–formerly known as the heart of downtown–is at the center of this effort to preserve and revitalize the West Side as a great place for Baltimore.
The West Side of downtown was in the spotlight last week as the focus of a five-day study by a panel from the national Urban Land Institute (see Saturday’s Baltimore Sun article) convened by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to provide guidance for the area’s ongoing revitalization. The panel presented preliminary recommendations to the Mayor last Friday and emphasized the importance of historic buildings as vital assets for the West Side’s future. Please continue to follow our blog over the next two weeks, as we share a series of posts explaining the history of the West Side preservation and redevelopment effort and a few of the ways this area matters to many people in Baltimore. This series kicks off with a free lunch time walking tour this Thursday, December 16 at 12:15 pm.
If you are curious about the history of Baltimore’s West Side and its future, please join us on an informal tour beginning at the east entrance to Lexington Market (Lexington & Eutaw Streets). We’ll look at the “Superblock,” historic department stores, cast-iron buildings, and more. It’s likely going to be as cold as all get out, but we’ll walk fast and won’t stay out too long.
West Side Lunchtime Walking Tour | East Entrance to Lexington Market (Lexington & Eutaw Streets)