Built in 1868, the three-story brick rowhouse at 1232 Druid Hill Avenue is an important reminder of the city’s rapid growth after the Civil War and the African American history of the Upton neighborhood. Please come to the public CHAP hearing on Tuesday, January 12 to support listing 1232 Druid Hill Avenue as a local landmark and protect the building from demolition. If you are unable to attend, you can share your support for the nomination by email with Eric Holcomb, Executive Director, CHAP at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Continued threats to Civil Rights heritage in West Baltimore neighborhoods highlight the urgent need to preserve 1232 Druid Hill Avenue. In September 2015, Bethel A.M.E. Church received permits for limited interior demolition at 1232 Druid Hill Avenue (acquired by the church in 1981) and the neighboring 1234 Druid Hill Avenue. Regrettably, the work soon led to a roof collapse at 1234 Druid Hill Avenue and the church received a permit to demolish both buildings—despite the fact that 1232 Druid Hill Avenue remained structurally sound. As the contractor tore down the Freedom House in early November, they continued to gut 1232 Druid Hill Avenue with an clear plan to tear the building down shortly.
Fortunately, the Baltimore Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) stepped up and placed the building on their potential landmark list. The potential landmark list is a new tool for preservation in Baltimore created by the revised CHAP ordinance and replacing the controversial “special list” designation. As the Baltimore Brewreported in November, CHAP posted a notice at 1232 Druid Hill Avenue and scheduled a hearing for January 12 to hear testimony from the owner and members of the public and decide whether to add the building to CHAP’s landmark list.
1232 Druid Hill Avenue tells the story of Baltimore’s changing neighborhoods through the stories of the many families who have called this house home. We call this the King/Briscoe House to recognize two particularly important residents at 1232 Druid Hill Avenue: local printer George W. King (who lived there from 1883 to 1898) and African American wagon driver Abraham Briscoe (who lived there with his family from 1899 to 1908). You can learn more about the history of 1232 Druid Hill Avenue with our draft landmark designation report.
If you plan to testify to support the designation next week, we urge you to read our tips for effective public testimony. The hearing starts at 1:00pm. This is the third item on the agenda so the staff presentation is likely to begin around 1:30pm. To testify, you need to sign up at the front desk for the planning department located just outside the Planning Department hearing room. Please feel free to contact us with any questions or comments or send me an email at email@example.com.
1234 Druid Hill Avenue had a story unlike any other. Harry S. Cummings, Baltimore’s first black City Councilman lived at the handsome rowhouse with his family from 1899 to 1911. In the 1950s and 1960s, the building served as offices to the local chapter of the NAACP, hosting Martin Luther King and Eleanor Roosevelt when they came to Baltimore to work with key leaders like Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson. In 1970, the property became “Freedom House” and continued to serve as a central hub of activism before Dr. Jackson donated the house to Bethel AME Church in 1977. Today, the house is demolition site piled high with bricks and debris.
Yesterday afternoon, Baltimore Heritage supported a rally organized by civil rights and heritage leaders Marvin Cheatham and Louis Fields to protest the demolition of the Freedom House by Bethel AME Church and start a conversation around saving threatened historic Civil Rights landmarks in the neighborhood. As we shared on Wednesday, members of the Marble Hill Community Association, who have been working to encourage the preservation of the Freedom House for years, were unable to stop the demolition when they contacted city officials with concerns in September and October. Regrettably, Baltimore Heritage only learned about this issue after the demolition began.
You can read more about the rally in the Baltimore Sun or see coverage from WJZ CBS. We are seeking a meeting with the leadership of Bethel AME Church and City Councilman Eric Costello to better understand how this demolition took place and what we can do to protect the building next door at 1232 Druid Hill Avenue from the immediate threat of demolition. We are also working with Baltimore’s preservation commission and neighborhood residents to expand the boundaries of the Upton’s Marble Hill CHAP District.
Where do we go from here?
The rally gave our community a place to voice concerns and to make plans for the future. We lost one important building this week but there are many more that still need our help. We have already identified seven Civil Rights landmarks in Upton alone that are threatened by neglect. You can help by sharing your knowledge about buildings or sites associated with Baltimore’s Civil Rights movement more information about these and other properties or by exploring our map of Civil Rights site to learn more.
Here are three of the buildings in historic Marble Hill that we are working to preserve:
Mitchell Family Law Office
1239 Druid Hill Avenue served as law offices for Juanita Jackson Mitchell, Clarence Mitchell, Jr. and other members of the Mitchell family. An accomplished lawyer and activist, Juanita Jackson Mitchell organized the Citywide Young People’s Forum in the 1930s to push for more opportunity for black youth during the Great Depression. Clarence Mitchell, Jr. served as the long-time lobbyist for the NAACP and played a key role in the passage of major Civil Rights legislation. The roof of 1239 Druid Hill Avenue collapsed during the winter of 2014 and the building is severely threatened by neglect.
Juanita Jackson and Clarence Mitchell, Jr. House
Juanita Jackson and Clarence Mitchell moved to 1324 Druid Hill Avenue in 1942, the same year Clarence started working at the Fair Employment Practices Commission set up by President Roosevelt to fight workplace discrimination during WWII. Visitors at the home included Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington, and Marian Anderson. The couple raised five sons at the house and continued to live there until the end of their lives. Baltimore City stabilized the roof and rear wall of the building in 2013 but it remains vacant and in poor condition.
Druid Health Center/Home of the Friendless
A former orphanage (listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Home of the Friendless), the Druid Hill Health Center at 1313 Druid Hill Avenue was the first public health center for African Americans in Baltimore. Years of vacancy and neglect have caused the building to deteriorate and neighborhood residents have pushed the city to stabilize the structure without success. A local developer recently submitted a proposal for 14 artist residences with preliminary support by the Marble Hill Community Association.
Why are we fighting to save Civil Rights heritage?
We believe that these buildings are important for the stories they hold and the lessons they teach. We also recognize that we cannot separate historic preservation from the difficult issues of vacancy and disinvestment in Upton and in many of Baltimore’s historically African American communities. To save Baltimore’s Civil Rights sites, we must listen to the people who live nearby and work together to revitalize their neighborhoods.
We do not yet have the solution to the decades-old problems of disinvestment that threaten so many homes in Marble Hill, but we do believe that preserving historic buildings is part of a solution. The stories behind these buildings help us understand Baltimore’s history of segregation and discrimination—a history that still contributes to challenges in these neighborhoods today. As Baltimore’s own Frederick Douglass remarked in 1884:
It is not well to forget the past. Memory was given to man for some wise purpose. The past is… the mirror in which we may discern the dim outlines of the future.
With Frederick Douglass’s words in mind, we are working to turn Civil Rights landmarks throughout the city back into assets for Baltimore neighborhoods and address the inequality that continues in too many Baltimore communities. Please help us find ways to save our city’s diverse heritage and build a stronger and more equitable future for Baltimore by contributing to our growing list of identified Civil Rights heritage sites and subscribing for updates on this important work.
Last week, Bethel AME Church demolished 1234 Druid Hill Avenue, a rowhouse located just outside Upton’s Marble Hill historic district with strong connections to Baltimore’s Civil Rights movement. The demolition came as a shock to neighborhood activists who had urged city officials to investigate and protect the property when Bethel AME began work on the building in late September.
1234 Druid Hill Avenue is known to a generation of local Civil Rights activists as “Freedom House”—serving as an office to the local chapter of the NAACP, hosting meetings with Clarence Mitchell, Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson, luncheons with Eleanor Roosevelt and even Martin Luther King, Jr. Known as a “mighty little organization,” Freedom House was established by the Baltimore NAACP in 1970 under the leadership of Dr. Lillie M. Jackson. By December 1977, the organization had “received many citations including the AFRO’s highest honor for its successful crusades in reducing unemployment, crime and delinquency.”
Just as importantly, 1234 Druid Hill Avenue had been the home of Harry Sythe Cummings and his family from 1899 to 1911. In 1889, Cummings graduated from the University of Maryland Law School (one of the first two black men to do so) and, in 1890, became the first African American elected to a Baltimore City Council seat.
How did Baltimore lose the Freedom House?
1234 Druid Hill Avenue and its neighbor at 1232 have been owned or controlled by Bethel AME Church for decades. In recent years, the buildings deteriorated significantly and, in July 2015, Baltimore Slumlord Watch highlighted their poor condition. Bethel AME Church responded to these issues by securing a city building permit for both buildings in late September that allowed non-structural alterations and limited demolition (e.g. removing debris, interior drywall, nonbearing walls). Unfortunately, in October the church changed their plans and received approval from the Baltimore Housing Department to demolish 1234 Druid Hill Avenue—without notifying preservation advocates or the local chapter of the NAACP.
It is currently unclear whether the demolition permit for 1234 also applies to 1232. Continuing confusion around the status of the permit for this planned demolition has been a source of frustration for concerned residents. If reports by residents are accurate, Bethel AME Church is planning to continue to demolish 1232 Druid Hill Avenue within the next few days.
What can be done to preserve Baltimore’s Civil Rights heritage?
The destruction of the Freedom House on Druid Hill Avenue is a shocking wake-up call for anyone concerned about the preservation of Baltimore’s Civil Rights heritage. Persistent vacancy and demolition by neglect are destroying historic buildings that tell the important story of the Civil Rights movement in Baltimore and around the country. Please join Baltimore Heritage as we support tomorrow’s rally urging Bethel AME Church to preserve 1232 Druid Hill Avenue and fight for the protection of West Baltimore’s Civil Rights landmarks. Baltimore Heritage is asking neighborhood leaders and elected officials to support a comprehensive effort to address the deteriorating condition of the landmarks of Baltimore Civil Rights history and ensure their preservation for future generations to discover.
Learn more about our work to document and protect Civil Rights landmarks. For questions or additional information about tomorrow’s rally, please contact Louis Fields, President, African American Tourism Council of Maryland, Inc. at 443-983-7974.
Thanks to Baltimore Heritage intern Elise Hoffman for her research on the history of the Upton Mansion. Do you want to share your photos or stories of West Baltimore landmarks? Please get in touch with Eli Pousson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-204-337.
High on a hill at 811 West Lanvale Street, behind a chain link fence and past the overgrown yard, is the grand Upton Mansion— an architectural treasure by one of Baltimore’s earliest architects that has witnessed nearly 200 years of change in the Upton neighborhood that shares the building’s name. In the 1830s, Baltimore lawyer David Stewart hired architect Robert Carey Long, Jr., to design his country house. R. Cary (as he liked to call himself) was one of Baltimore’s first professionally trained architects designing the Lloyd Street Synagogue (now part of the Jewish Museum of Maryland), the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City, and the main gate of Greenmount Cemetery among more than 80 buildings across the country. Son of a Baltimore merchant who armed seven schooners and two brigantines as privateers during the Revolutionary War, Stewart became a prominent local lawyer and got involved in politics, serving a brief month as a US Senator in 1849.
The mansion is widely recognized as the last surviving Greek Revival country house in Baltimore. It remains secluded in urban West Baltimore, sitting high above the neighboring buildings and surrounded by brick and stone walls. In the mid-19th century, you would have seen a grand porch with Doric columns and ironwork bearing the Stewart family crest. Inside the building, you could have observed more than a dozen marble and onyx fireplaces, a main entrance hall, a curved oak staircase, and a banquet room that was so large it has since been divided into multiple rooms. David Stewart enjoyed entertaining guests in his mansion and hosted lavish, indulgent parties there so frequently that he developed gout.
After Stewart’s death in 1858, the house was purchased by the Dammann family, who owned the house for so many generations that it became known as “the old Dammann mansion.” The family left in 1901, and the house found itself empty for the first time, but not the last. The mansion’s next owner, musician Robert Young, took a cue from David Stewart and used the spacious and opulent mansion to host “several brilliant social affairs where hundreds of guests moved about in the spacious rooms.” Young would be the last owner to use the building as a home, and his time there was short-lived – he found the mansion too drafty and abandoned after less than 3 years.
The commercial life of the Upton mansion began in 1930 when one of Baltimore’s first radio stations, WCAO, moved into the building. Extensive alterations were made to accommodate WCAO – tall twin radio towers were added to the roof, walls were torn down and rooms partitioned off to create studios and equipment rooms. The next commercial venture in the Upton mansion came in 1947, when WCAO sold it to the Baltimore Institute of Musical Arts. The school was originally opened with the intentions of creating a parallel program to that offered at Peabody, a renowned music school not open to African-American students at the time, though it eventually closed in the mid-1950s after desegregation granted black students equal access to public music schools. In 1957 the Baltimore City School System moved in to the building and used it first as the special education “Upton School for Trainable Children No. 303,” and then the headquarters for Baltimore City Public School’s Home and Hospital Services program. Unfortunately, Upton Mansion has sat empty since BCPS left in 2006.
The Upton mansion has a rich cultural legacy that extends beyond its use as a social hot spot, a radio station, and a school. In the 1960s, the mansion was chosen as the community namesake during an urban renewal project going on in the neighborhood at the time. As a physical landmark of the neighborhood for more than a century, the Upton mansion’s name was intended to serve as “the symbol of a physical and human renewal in West Baltimore.” Despite its presence on the National Register of Historic Places and the Baltimore Landmark List, the city-owned building remains empty and unmaintained in west Baltimore. In 2009, Preservation Maryland included in on a list of the state’s most endangered historic places, and the building is threatened by vandalism and neglect. Today, the mansion awaits a new owner, someone willing to restore the beautiful building to its historic potential.