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Business & Developmentby Fern Shen2:44 pmApr 10, 20230

For critics decrying the state of historic preservation in Baltimore, Hendler Creamery is Exhibit A

PART 1: “It’s terrible to see it go from empty and fixable, then to let it rot for three or four years, and then to say it’s not structurally sound”

Above: The landmark Hendler Building as it looked when Commercial Group purchased it in 2012, prior to partial demolition work that included roof removal. (Wikipedia)

The smart money now says the Hendler Creamery Building, at 1100 East Baltimore Street, will join the list of grand old city landmarks that should have been preserved, but weren’t.

At least two people aren’t giving up on the 131-year-old architectural gem and have formally contested a recent vote to permit demolition, citing mysteriously deleted footage of the March 14 meeting video and other apparent irregularities.

Whether their appeal stands or falls, the Hendler property is providing critics with a fresh example of what they say is wrong with historic preservation in Baltimore.

“I’m not sure it could have been handled any more poorly,” architect Jerome Gray says.

Gray, whose popular Instagram page displays his sketches and watercolors of Baltimore buildings, knows a lot about the architectural and cultural significance of the Hendler.

“I could talk to you about it for hours,” he warns, only half joking.

Architect Jerome Gray Preston Street. (Fern Shen) Hendler Creamery Co. building at 1100 East Baltimore Street. American Sugar Refinery, Domino Sugar tank truck, Hughes Company, 1955, PP30-144-51, MdHS.

Architect Jerome Gray outside the Preston Street rowhouses in Mount Vernon that he and others pushed the city to save last year. (Fern Shen)

So Much History

Gray begins by naming the architect, Jackson C. Gott, who designed the three-story Richardsonian Romanesque building, located in the historically rich Jonestown neighborhood.

Like other buildings that began as steam-powered cable car powerhouses, the Hendler had to evolve to serve other uses after the emergence of electric trolleys, Gray explained.

PART 2: A look at Baltimore’s preservation and planning fiascos (4/12/23)

From 1903 to 1912 it was a theater launched by impresario James Lawrence Kernan. There was an auditorium on the second floor that showed some of the city’s earliest motion pictures.

Catering to the area’s largely Jewish immigrant population, the theater was a venue for vaudeville, plays and other shows performed in Yiddish.

Then in 1912 came the building’s third and most famous use: home of the Hendler Creamery Company, the country’s first fully automated ice cream factory.

“You could teach so much. You could talk about this amazing product that was, in a lot of ways, developed here,” Gray said, bemoaning the loss of a building containing multiple layers of local history in transportation, arts and industry.

“Once it’s gone, it will reside only in the heads of historians or in books,” he lamented. “There will be no physical manifestation of it.”

Hendler Creamery Co. building at 1100 East Baltimore Street. American Sugar Refinery, Domino Sugar tank truck, Hughes Company, 1955, PP30-144-51, MdHS.

A Domino Sugar truck backs into the Hendler Creamery loading bay on East Baltimore Street in 1955. (Hughes Company, PP30-144-51, MdHS.)

An Ambitious Plan . . .

The creamery operation ceased in the 1970s. But the fortress-like building that had churned out vanilla, chocolate and ice cream oddities like eggnog flavored with real rum was still structurally sound 30 years later.

So said the Maryland Historic Trust, in the course of getting the Hendler listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

The buildings at 1100 East Baltimore Street “are in good condition, with the exception of some roof leaks in the 1892 building,” according to the Trust’s 2007 application.

Five years after that, when Kevin Johnson’s Commercial Group acquired the property, it appeared in satellite photos to be an intact structure with a roof.

Johnson’s company, based in suburban Hanover, promised to transform the building into “The Hendler,” a $75 million, six-level apartment project with underground parking and upscale Harbor East vibe.

Plans called for the 1892 creamery building to be retained, but its gable roof to be replaced with a glassed-in terrace level with 12 dwelling units.

The Hendler Creamery Building site before 2018 demolition work by Commercial. (Google StreetView)

ABOVE: The Hendler site, between Fayette Street and Baltimore Street, before the 2018 demolition work by Commercial. BELOW: One of developer’s concept drawings for “The Hendler.” (Google Street View, designcollective.com)

One of the schematics for

. . . That Never Happened

But over the ensuing decade – and in spite of an announced scale-back to less-expensive workforce housing – nothing was ever built.

A who’s who of city decision makers provided enthusiastic support during those years as the plans remained on paper and the actual building went downhill.

The Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), for instance, voted in 2013 to sell a city-owned warehouse at the site – appraised at $455,000 – to Commercial for no money down.

“A dynamic residential project,” declared then-BDC President William H. Cole IV, when the Board of Estimates approved the transfer of the warehouse and other parcels to the company.

Officials said Commercial’s project would enhance a historic area already getting a boost from new entities like the Ronald McDonald House and the National Aquarium’s Animal Care and Rescue Center.

“Redevelopment of Hendler Creamery into market-rate housing with retail space continues the momentum of realizing the neighborhood’s full potential,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced in a 2015 press release.

Looking back, Gray said, their thinking made sense.

“If you activated this and other buildings in the area, they could be a real anchor for the neighborhood,” he said. “They could put people on the ground there 24 hours a day.”

The Hendler Creamery Building, shown after its owner removed a wall and the roof, sits in the middle of Baltimore's historic Jonestown neighborhood. (Google Earth)

Seen after the Commercial Group removed the east wall and exposed the roof, the Hendler Building sits in the middle of the historic Jonestown neighborhood. (Google Earth)

Roof Removed

That was in 2015, the year an even more pivotal approval took place.

Commercial got the green light from the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) for a revised concept plan.

It involved demolition of not just the warehouse and other nearby non-historic buildings, but the entire east wall of the main structure, as well as the interior.

The commissioners subsequently approved demolition of the entire roof as well.

Hendler building facade is braced at the site where the developer's plans have been stalled since last year. (Ed Gunts)

The braced north facade of the Hendler Building, surrounded by construction debris, in 2019. (Ed Gunts)

The demolition went forward in 2018. Steel bracing beams were leaned up against the outside of the historic facades.

After that, work stopped completely.

The fenced-off site became a mess of rubble, construction litter, and abandoned tools and equipment. Leaders of neighboring institutions, including the Jewish Museum of Maryland and the McKim Center, expressed – to no avail – annoyance and concern.

After trying unsuccessfully to get answers about the project’s status, The Daily Record noted that Johnson “has not served as lead developer on a project the size and magnitude of the creamery overhaul.”

The Brew, which has followed the rapid rise of his drywall company, tried to reach Johnson for this story and also has not received a response.

CEO Kevin Johnson describes himself on Commercial Group's website as

Developer Kevin Johnson describes himself on his company’s website as “a creative artist disguised as an entrepreneur.” (commercial-group.com)

Demolition by Neglect

Fast forward across five more years of inaction by Johnson and the city.

“It was a great effort to develop the property,” CHAP Executive Director Eric Holcomb said last month, briskly summing up the Hendler saga for the commissioners. “It didn’t happen.”

Now that the building has “deteriorated beyond repair,” Holcomb continued, permission to demolish should be granted.

Holcomb based this recommendation on a finding by the engineer for the contract buyer, Helping Up Mission, that the building could not be salvaged. (As part of the missing video footage of the CHAP meeting, the engineer’s exact testimony is unavailable.)

The commissioners voted 8-3 in favor of demolition, a prospect that leaves architect Gray “crestfallen.”

“It’s terrible to see it go from empty and fixable, then to let it rot for three or four years, and then to say it’s not structurally sound,” he said.

Kathleen Kotarba, who retired as CHAP’s executive director in 2014, said she doesn’t know the exact circumstances of this case, but sees a problematic pattern.

“You have a number of projects that look like they will be wonderful, and people say it will be great and people get all excited about it and it just doesn’t happen. It seems like this is happening now with too much frequency.”

A mechanism needs to be put in place, Kotarba said, to give city government the leverage to make sure that developers keep their promises.

“The city could ask for a bond to be posted. If they don’t perform as promised, they default,” she said.

To former CHAP staffer Fred Shoken, it’s about leadership.

“It used to be the city would take decisive action,” Shoken said, citing the use of code enforcement, the power of eminent domain and, back in the 1980s, stern private phone calls from then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer.

“Those powers are still there. If the city had balls, it would say to an owner, ‘Your property is a blight, we’re getting involved.’”

Donna Beth Joy Shapiro and Fred Shoken on Baltimore Street outside the Hendler Creamery Building. (Fern Shen)

Donna Beth Joy Shapiro and Fred Shoken on Baltimore Street outside the Hendler Creamery Building. (Fern Shen)

Price Point

But do preservationists – and Schaefer-style activism – ignore the problem that preserving old buildings may be economically unfeasible for private developers?

Kotarba has a quick answer for what she sees as a short-sighted and narrow concern: “No one ever comes along later and says they regret saving something.”

“If not for preservationists,” she observed, “Mount Vernon Place would be gone. City Hall would be gone. Camden Yards would be gone.”

Architect Craig Purcell says money is always going to be the challenge.

“Developers are all about efficiency, squeezing out every last dollar. They can’t make money easily with a huge historic building with big spaces,” he said.

“And yet we seem to have become demolition happy,” he continued. “I mean what is Baltimore, if we don’t have historic properties?”

Detail from a front view of the Hendler Creamery building last month. (Fern Shen)

Detail from the front East Baltimore Street wall of the Hendler Building that’s still standing. (Fern Shen)

Success Across the Street

To Gray, paying a premium to save a cultural treasure is worth it.

“It’s not like this can’t be done in Baltimore,” he said, citing East Baltimore’s restored and repurposed Hoen and American Brewery buildings.

Or the Westside’s Mayfair Theatre, whose facade is being incorporated into a new building, a so-called “facade-ectomy.”

Speaking of successful facade-ectomies, there is one that’s in an ironic location: The Helping Up Mission’s headquarters right across the street from the Hendler property, says preservation advocate Donna Beth Joy Shapiro.

In 2009, the nonprofit proudly saved the propped-up facade of its headquarters building on East Baltimore Street as part of a historic renovation that was reviewed and approved by CHAP.

Now the same nonprofit wants another CHAP approval for its plans regarding a historic property. But this time, Helping Up, which plans to convert the property to “green space,” says the entire historic structure must come down.

“This tells you a building like this could be saved – they did it themselves,” Shapiro said.

“It’s this ‘I’ve got mine, but you can’t have yours’ mentality – it’s the height of hypocrisy.”

Above, the propped up facade of the Helping Up Mission's building on East Baltimore Street, salvaged as part of renovation. Below, 14 years later, the now propped-up front of the Hendler Building across the street, which Helping Up wants to buy, but says is unsalvageable and must be demolished. (Courtesy Fred Shoken)

ABOVE: The propped-up facade of the Helping Up Mission’s building in 2009, which was salvaged as part of the mission’s renovation. BELOW: The propped-up front of the Hendler Building across the street, which Helping Up wants to demolish. (Courtesy of Fred Shoken)

Coming – PART 2: A Look at Baltimore’s Planning and Preservation Fiascos.

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