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Neighborhoodsby Fern Shen3:55 pmJun 27, 20230

Fighting demolition by neglect in a Baltimore neighborhood that shaped America’s civil rights movement

Marble Hill residents say Bethel A.M.E.’s plan to raze the King/Briscoe house hurts a Black neighborhood on the rise and shows the city’s chronic failure to protect its past

Above: Marble Hill Improvement Association members Stephan Hanley, Keshontae Lewis and Marti Pitrelli outside 1232 Druid Hill Avenue. (Fern Shen)

Back in 2015, defenders of Baltimore’s Black history kicked into gear after the city allowed Bethel A.M.E. Church to tear down Freedom House, a meeting place for early civil rights leaders and the former home of the first African-American elected to the City Council.

Visited by Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr., the rowhouse at 1234 Druid Hill Avenue that once was the headquarters of the NAACP was precious, they said.

But so was the adjacent rowhouse that had been damaged by the demolition crews, but remained standing.

Baltimore’s preservation panel agreed.

Against the wishes of Bethel Church, which was gifted the property years ago, the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) voted unanimously in 2016 to grant temporary landmark status to 1232 Druid Hill Avenue, known as the King/Briscoe House.

The city took a seemingly tough stance, telling Bethel to stabilize and secure the building, rebuild its back wall and submit a plan to maintain its roof, according to records on file with the Department of Housing and Community Development.

About the same time, a bill to make the building’s landmark status permanent was introduced by Eric Costello, the district’s councilman.

Rear of 1232 Druid Hill Avenue, with partially collapsed rear wall. The lot at left is where Freedom House, demolished in 2015, once stood. (Fern Shen)

Rear of 1232 Druid Hill Avenue is hollowed out with a gaping rear wall. The lot at left is where Freedom House once stood. (Fern Shen)

Fast forward to today:

• The rear of the King/Briscoe House is totally open to the elements after the back of the building tumbled to the ground in February.

• The badly sagging roof looks to be on the verge of collapse.

• The 2017 “landmark status” bill quietly died in committee.

• And on the front of the building, the housing department has posted an Emergency Condemnation and Demolition Notice.

“It’s pretty much the epitome of demolition by neglect,” noted longtime Marble Hill community leader Marti Pitrelli, who lives nearby.

“If they continue to let these places crumble, it’s a huge setback. You’re demolishing our history,” declared Keshontae Lewis, president of the Marble Hill Improvement Association (MHIA).

“You can lose it really fast. You’ve got to give us something to hold onto.”

Bethel: No Comment

The Brew asked if the sign on 1232 Druid Hill Avenue means that the King/Briscoe House is about to be torn down, and, if so, why?

Church leaders would not comment on their reasons for wanting to raze the building or discuss their future plans for the property.

“We’ve been discussing with neighbors who are also members and reaching out to those on our liaison committee to coordinate a meeting with some of the local community boards,” Rev. Janette R. Smith wrote back in an email.

“Once we have a convenient meeting time for most people during the summer, I am happy to send you an invite,” Smith added.

1232 Druid Hill Ave with CHAP sign on door next to demolished 1234, ex-Freedom house. Bethel Church across the street.

A yellow demolition notice on the front door of 1232 Druid Hill Avenue in 2015, days after its neighbor, the former Freedom House, was torn down. Both properties are owned by Bethel Church, seen across the street. (Mark Reutter)

City: No Guarantees

Asked last week why Bethel does not appear to have been fined or required to maintain the historic structure, housing officials had no answer.

A spokeswoman did address The Brew’s question about whether 1232 is about to be torn down.

“Property is a vacant building and is condemned, but is not scheduled for demolition by the City,” DHCD’s Tammy Hawley said, in an email. “There are no current permits on the property.”

Pitrelli got a similar response earlier this year from Deputy Housing Commissioner Jason Hessler, who went on to say he “tagged the property so that we [will be] alerted should a demo permit application be submitted.”

But Hessler also warned that DHCD “cannot prevent the issuance of a permit that meets all the criteria for issuance.”

“Should an application come in,” he wrote, “we would be notified, and I can alert the community so they can determine what if any actions they would like to take.”

Excavator digs into a party wall of one of the 14 houses destroyed today on the Cab Calloway block of Druid Hill Avenue. (Fern Shen)

Excavator digs into a party wall of one of the 14 houses destroyed on September 5, 2020 on the Cab Calloway block of Druid Hill Avenue. (Fern Shen)

“Sell it to someone who will”

The controversy is part of long-simmering tensions in a part of Baltimore known for its rich civil rights history, real estate churn and periodic open clashes between community members and the area’s powerful churches.

One month there’s an announcement of an old building getting millions of public dollars for restoration. The next there’s the kind of demolition that claimed Cab Calloway’s childhood home or a fire that recently destroyed the Sellers Mansion.

Marble Hill is “not just one of the hubs of civil rights history in Baltimore – it is the hub,” declared Johns W. Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage, at a protest rally after Freedom House was reduced to rubble and its sister structure was at risk.

Now eight years later, 1232 Druid Hill Avenue is at even greater risk.

“It’s really sad,” Lewis said last week, looking at the patch of grass where Freedom House used to be.

If the church doesn’t want to fix up 1232 Druid Hill Avenue, “they should sell it to someone who will,” her husband, Stephan Hanley, observed.

The couple is rehabbing a nearby house in a careful manner, adhering to the design requirements of the Marble Hill Historic District.

Hanley, the MHIA’s treasurer, says there is a lot of real estate activity and renovation in the neighborhood lately – not all of it in keeping with the area’s rich past.

The Rose Walk, a key feature of Henry Highland Garnet Park in the 1300 block of Druid Hill Avenue. (Fern Shen)

ABOVE: Flowers in bloom recently along “The Rose Walk” at Henry Highland Garnet Park in the 1300 block of Druid Hill Avenue. BELOW: Promo for a recent Baltimore Heritage tour of Marble Hill’s civil rights history. (Fern Shen, baltimoreheritage.org)

Promotion for a recent Baltimore Heritage tour of Marble Hill's Civil Rights history.

CHAP staff described Marble Hill’s significance in the report filed as part of their recommendation that 1232 Druid Hill Avenue be granted landmark status:

“The district is primarily residential, but also contains two historic churches, a YMCA and a historic bank. The houses are traditional, marble-stepped brick rowhouses, exhibiting either Queen Anne or Italianate influence. Typical details are bowed fronts, original wood double doors, conical roof towers at corners, corbelled brickwork, roof cresting and arched doorways. The integrity of the district remains high, as little alteration has taken place.”

The district is also important, CHAP said, as “one of Baltimore’s earliest African-American middle-class neighborhoods.”

Marble Hill is important as “one of Baltimore’s earliest African-American middle class neighborhoods”  – CHAP.

The King/Briscoe House is important because of its “association with the broader pattern of how African Americans sought opportunities in Baltimore before and during the Great Migration,” Baltimore Heritage researchers note.

They discovered that the rowhouse was owned by a prominent printer, George W. King, and then was the home of a wagon driver, Abraham Briscoe, one of thousands who moved to the city from Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore:

“The Briscoe family’s move to 1232 Druid Hill Avenue reflects the opportunities that many African Americans found in Baltimore in the late nineteenth century as well as their resistance to discrimination and segregation which laid a foundation for civic activism and organizing in the early and mid twentieth century.”

Potted plants outside a home on the 1300 block of Druid Hill Avenue. (Fern Shen)

Potted plants outside a home on the 1300 block of Druid Hill Avenue. (Fern Shen)

Money is Flowing

In 2016, Bethel Church leaders chided their critics, saying the restoration of an old rowhouse was an expensive luxury.

“Buildings don’t make history. People do,” then-Pastor Frank M. Reid III stated at the CHAP hearing on a temporary landmark status for 1232 Druid Hill Avenue.

Hanley argues that Marble Hill’s buildings, like those of Bolton Hill or Fells Point, are worth maintaining. And they can be salvaged, he says, even when they’re as dilapidated as the 155-year-old King/Briscoe house.

“We have talked to architects who say it can be done. We’ve asked Shelley Halstead at Black Women Build, and she has said [1232 Druid Hill Avenue] does not have to be demolished.”

Home of the Friendless (Fern Shen)

ABOVE: The former “Home of the Friendless” on Druid Hill Avenue. BELOW: The future Bethel Empowerment and Wellness Center at 1429 McCulloh Street. (Fern Shen)

The Bethel Wellness Center. (Fern Shen)

Across the street and within blocks of the King-Briscoe House are signs that a lot of money is being spent to repair other historic properties.

A worker was carrying construction material into the former law office of Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Maryland School of Law.

The building at 1239 Druid Hill Avenue, owned by the Beloved Community Services Corp., an arm of Union Baptist Church, is being refurbished as a legal and social services hub.

Now under reconstruction: a church-sponsored legal aid hub and a church-affiliated wellness center.

The project is poised to get $1.75 million in federal funding.

Just up the street, at 1313 Druid Hill Avenue, is the former Home of the Friendless orphanage.

The city housing department is investing $2.3 million to stabilize the structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but has sat vacant and deteriorating for years.

Bethel Wellness Center

Two blocks away, a group affiliated with Bethel, including former Mayor Sheila Dixon, has snagged public funds to restore a sprawling rowhouse at 1429 McCulloh Street that is owned by the church.

The project has tapped into multiple state funds, including $700,000 from a legislative bond bill secured by state Senator Antonio Hayes, a $1.25 million Maryland Seed Community Development Anchor Institution Fund grant co-sponsored with Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), and $100,000 from the State Commission on African American History & Culture.

Last year, the Scott administration gave the Bethel Outreach Center a $1.25 million construction grant (drawn from federal ARPA funds) to be used for a planned wellness and resource center.

Hanley said such activity demonstrates that restoration of 1232 Druid Hill Avenue can happen if Bethel, or any other powerful party, decides to use its political clout to secure City Hall support. “They can do it whenever they want to.”

To reach a reporter: fern.shen@baltimorebrew.com

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