University City, Philadelphia

I spent a week in Philadelphia last month participating in a training on Historic Real Estate Finance from the National Development Council. The five-day course – organized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation with support from the 1776 Foundation – gave me an expanded understanding of how redevelopment projects are supported through a range of private and public investments.

One highlight of the week was a tour of the University City neighborhood (organized by Melissa Jest from the National Trust and led by local resident/developer Ryan Spack) where we learned about the reuse of a former bank building on Baltimore Avenue as the Mariposa Food Co-op and the Project Rehab program of the University City District. We also got to peek inside the Frank Furness designed former Saint Peter’s Church of Christ – a building that was narrowly saved from demolition early this year.

I uploaded a set of photographs from the training and tour to Flickr and included a few favorites below.

University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Mural, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Baltimore Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Row houses, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Vacant rowhouse, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Former St. Peter's Church of Christ, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Former St. Peter's Church of Christ, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

“I am unwilling to see erected in the public streets of this city a monument to a dead idea”

As Baltimore begins a review of the city’s Confederate monuments, I’ve been doing some research on the history of these monuments trying to understand the city in which the monuments were originally erected. I was excited to find a “sensible letter” from Charles T. Crane to then Baltimore Mayor Ferdinand Claiborne Latrobe, published on March 27, 1880. I was surprised to find that Crane, a Confederate veteran, strongly disavowed the principle behind the recent rebellion and efforts to memorialize the Confederacy, writing: “I am unwilling to see erected in the public streets of this city a monument to a dead idea.”

Who supported the effort to erect this Confederate memorial? What moved Crane to write to the mayor? How can we understand this unusual document today?

"The Ragged Gray Jacket," from a menu published by the Society Of The Army & Navy Of The Confederate States, Carrollton Hotel, Baltimore, January 20, 1896. New York Public Library.
“The Ragged Gray Jacket,” from a menu published by the Society Of The Army & Navy Of The Confederate States, Carrollton Hotel, Baltimore, January 20, 1896. New York Public Library.

On January 19, 1880, at the annual meeting of the Society of the Army and Navy of the Confederate States in Maryland, a group of Confederate veterans passed a series of resolutions organizing a committee to “secure funds for the purpose of erecting a monument in the city of Baltimore to the memory of Marylanders who died in the service of the Confederate States.” The group worked quickly and, on March 24, the first branch of the Baltimore City Council passed a resolution permitting the Society to “erect a monument on Eutaw Place, near Lanvale st.” Three days later, Crane’s letter appeared in The Sun.


In connection with the subject of a proposed Confederate monument in one of the public squares of Baltimore, Mr. Charles T. Crane, a soldier of the late Confederate army, has written the following sensible letter to Mayor Latrobe, which, it will be seen, is in accord with the views of The Sun, as given yesterday:

“Hon. F.C. Latrobe.—My Dear Sir. I do not believe that any one who knows me will question my devotion to the cause of the late Confederate States of America. It is with this belief that I venture to address you in opposition to the proposed Confederate monument in this city. I consider the erection of such a monument in the streets of Baltimore impolitic, inexpedient, and injudicious in the highest degree. Whatever the sentiments and sympathies of the people of Maryland may have been or may be now, there was and there is a very respectable minority of them who did not sympathize with the South during the civil war. Whatever may have been the agencies employed to accomplish such result, the fact remains that Maryland did not leave the Union, and while hundreds of her sons gave up their lives in defense of the South, the State itself was never a member of the Confederacy. I yield to no one in honoring the memories of those noble spirits who devotion to principle led them to abandon friends and home to die for what they conceived to be right.

We have two beautiful monuments erected to their memories in that hallowed city of the dead –Loudon Park. In my humble judgement this and kindred spots are the only fitting places on Maryland soil for the erection of Confederate monuments, because, whatever it may cost us to make the acknowledgement, however painful it may be to realize the fact, the truth is undeniable that the cause for which they fought is dead. The principles of civil liberty, of State’s rights and of local self-government may live, nay, do live and burn in thousands of manly bosoms, but the cause, a separate national existence for the States and people of the South is dead—forever dead.

This being my belief, I, for one, am prepared to accept the situation, and without the least abandonment of principle, without sacrifice of honor, with a heart full of love and reverence for my fallen comrades, I am unwilling to see erected in the public streets of this city a monument to a dead idea, but which will be a standing menace, and a source of bitterness not only to a great number of the citizens of Baltimore and Maryland, but to a great number of the people of the United States. The war is over. For God’s sake let us of the South do nothing to revive its enmities and hates, but rather cultivate a spirit of reconciliation and peace. We are one people, let us be one in spirit as well as in name.

I know that these views are opposed to some of my nearest and dearest friends, some of whom may be disposed to judge harshly my attitude in this matter. For this I am prepared. I believe I am right, and what is thought of me is of small consequence compared to the evils which I believe will follow the erection of the proposed monument.

I am, dear sir, yours very truly,

Chas. T. Crane

Baltimore, March 26, 1880.


Just days after the letter was published, the issue arrived before the Second Branch of the Baltimore City Council. Dr. J. Pembroke Thom, a member of the Council and also a Confederate veteran, opposed the proposed monument and presented into the record a memorial (meaning a letter, a memo) of “residents on Eutaw Square and vicinity and elsewhere, against allowing the erection of a Confederate monument on the square.” The letter from local residents, “expressed respect from the memory of the gallant dead, but opposed the movement as calculated to disturb harmony and good feeling between citizens of all shades of opinion.” In addition, the Council received printed memorials “with several hundred signatures of officers and soldiers who served in the Union army and others, in opposition to allowing the erection of the proposed Confederate monument in Eutaw Square.”

Despite this opposition, on March 31, 1880, the Society of the Army and Navy of the Confederate States in Maryland succeeded in pushing the second branch of the Baltimore City Council to approve the resolution and send it along to Mayor Latrobe.

Gen. Ferdinand C. Latrobe
Gen. Ferdinand C. Latrobe via Captain James

On April 5, 1880, the Mayor returned the resolution to the first branch of the City Council – “without his approval” – writing:

“During the late civil war the people of Baltimore were divided in sentiment and action on the questions which, after a prolonged and embittered struggle, were finally decided by the sword. The ardor, bravery and devotion to principle of the Maryland soldiers, and the honor due to the memory of those who fell upon the battle-field is universally acknowledged. But while the issues involved in the war have been settled by its result, in most cases the convictions of those who as actors or sympathizers took part in the contest continue to exist. Under these circumstances the erection at this time in one of the public squares of a memorial monument commemorative of the acts of those who fought upon either side would not fail to be repugnant to the opinions and sentiments of very many people. The public highways and squares of the city are the common property of all, and we who are temporarily entrusted with their control, whatever our personal opinions may be, are not, in my judgment, justified in dedicating any portion of them to a purpose which would be in direct opposition to the sensibilities and wishes of large numbers of citizens.”

The effort to build a monument on Eutaw Street evidently ended with Mayor Latrobe’s veto but Confederate veteran groups in Baltimore persisted.

Eutaw Place, c. 1903. Library of Congress, 4a10716v
Eutaw Place, c. 1903. Library of Congress, 4a10716v

Seven years later, the city saw the erection of a statue honoring Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney (donated by William Walters) in the north square of Mount Vernon Place. In February 1903, the “Spirit of the Confederacy” was dedicated at Mount Royal Terrace. In 1917, the Confederate Women’s Monument was erected at Charles Street and University Parkway. In 1948, the Robert E. Lee-Stonewall Jackson Monument was dedicated on Wyman Park Drive across from the Baltimore Museum of Art. For over 70 years, this persistent commemorative agenda closely paralleled efforts to segregate, disenfranchise, and discriminate against African-Americans in Baltimore and Maryland.

Mt. Royal Ave. and Confederate Monument, Baltimore, Md. Library of Congress, 4a24916v.
Mt. Royal Ave. and Confederate Monument, 1910. Library of Congress, 4a24916v.

It is striking that even opponents of the 1880 effort — Charles T. Crane, Dr. J. Pembroke Thom, and Ferdinand Latrobe — presented the Civil War as “settled.” They gave little consideration for how the nearly 54,000 African-Americans living in Baltimore at the time may have viewed the memorial. To understand the difficult history and significance of these monuments today, we must continue to expand this story beyond Crane’s letter. We must listen to the voices of the black Baltimoreans who stood witness to the erection of Confederate memorials in 1887, 1903, 1917, and 1948, and have experienced the consequences of these symbols in the city’s landscape up through the present.

“Branch Bank To Be Marked By New Look”

I’ve been driving up and down Harford Road pretty regularly over the past few weeks for our work on the Herring Run Archaeology project. Each time I return back down to Mount Vernon, this midcentury bank building at 2056 Harford Road just called out to me. Knowing nothing about the building, I went looking for some more details.

A quick search turned up a Baltimore Sun account from September 4, 1956 – Branch Bank To Be Marked By New Look – turned up some key details on this former branch location for the Union Trust Bank:

“A long-range program of modernization has resulted in the construction of eight new, modern bank buildings to replace old structures, plus extensive remodeling and enlargement of five additional branch offices in a ten-year period. There are now 25 Union Trust banking offices scattered through the Baltimore area. […] Designed by Smith & Veale, local architects, the new building is to give the conception of a glass box. The steel frame is exposed and treated as part of the architecture of the building. Masonry masses are utilized to conceal the vault and other security facilities of the branch. […] Ample hard-surfaced parking area on the rear of the lot is afforded for walk-in customers. A drive-up window beneath a canopy is available along the side of the building.”

The firm of Smith & Veale was a partnership of local architects Thomas W. Smith and Graham Veale established shortly after the end of World War II. The firm designed scores of modern banks, libraries and schools. Veale, who passed away in 1996 at the age of 91, was a Philadelphia native who came to Baltimore as a teenager. Smith died in 1998 at the age of 89. I recently profiled two other buildings designed by the firm – the KAGRO Building on North Avenue and the North Point Branch of the Baltimore County Public Library – as part of a nascent effort to expand our coverage of modernism in Explore Baltimore Heritage. I’d love to located the eight new Union Trust bank branches mentioned above and add them to our growing collection. If you’re interested in modernist architecture in Baltimore, please join the Baltimore Modernism Project Facebook group to share ideas, research and writing on this theme.

Photograph by Nether via Baltimore Slumlord Watch.
Photograph by Nether via Baltimore Slumlord Watch.

The striking combination of the midcentury sign board and the cantilevered canopy above the bank’s drive-through window was regrettably demolished in the fall of 2013 – not long after the deteriorated condition of the building was highlighted with a public artwork by  Wall Hunters Mural project. The bank building remains vacant.

When Google Streetview last captured Harford Road in October 2014, a “For Rent” advertised the building’s availability and included a phone number t0 call for more information: 443-255-2028.


Featured image: Photograph by Camilo J. Vergara, 2013 January 9. Library of Congress, vrg 00340.

We have a problem with vacant houses in Baltimore. Part two of two.

This is Part Two of my paper for the Vernacular Architecture Forum Conference in Chicago. Part one is located here. This particular section is adapted from another post I published last summer.

A final example from 1910 illustrates the difficulty that many residents and elected official experienced in trying to come to terms with the causes of vacant  houses. Some observers clearly saw how suburban growth at the periphery and disinvestment from the core drove Baltimore’s emerging vacant house problem. However, then and perhaps now, anxiety over high property taxes, worries over diminished property values and white supremacy largely defined the terms of the debate. Rather than challenge the enormous public subsidies for suburban growth or encourage more substantial investment in the maintenance of older city neighborhoods (by then occupied largely by recent immigrants and African Americans), the city instead fought vacancy by writing racism into local housing laws.

In August 1910, a member of the real estate firm of William Martien & Company who shared a growing “agitation over the number of vacant houses in the city,” asked the Baltimore Police board to undertake a “complete census of the number of houses, both vacant and occupied in the city.” With the release of the report, real estate agent James Cary Martien argued, “The number of vacant houses in the city is due both to the many dwellings being built in the suburbs and the dilapidated condition of many in Baltimore.”

Martien’s focus on housing supply and demand neglected to account for the intense concern that many Baltimoreans had with racial segregation – advancing the necessity of segregation on the principle of white supremacy and the economic logic of preserving property values. In the weeks that followed the publication of the report, a series of letters to the Sun expanded on Martien’s summary and tied vacancy closely to the perceived threat of “negro invasion.”

For example, when some residents argued that high taxes contributed to housing abandonment, one northwest Baltimore resident wrote back under the name “Pure White” arguing that the “negro neighbor is the main reason.” The letter, published on August 27, 1910, continued:

“When a man works and saves and buys a home thinking it will be his shelter in his old age, and wakes up some morning to find he has a negro neighbor, he feels hurt and aggrieved that he has to give up his home, but he moves. […] I know of three families who want to buy a home this fall and they prefer the city to the suburbs, but they are hesitating because of this disagreeable possibility. […] The real estate men—a few of them, not all—are to blame for the vacant houses and with them, lies the remedy.

On September 2, 1910, a letter signed by “Justice” echoed this sentiment and with a demand that the city to protect his neighborhood from “invasion” and vacant houses writing:

“There are several vacant houses in the block, and this fear may be the potent cause of non-rental or sale. Each vacant house is a standing menace to the rest. We live in daily dread that we may be driven out and forced to sell at a depreciated price if we can sell at all.”

A third resident, writing on September 15, 1910, framed the issue as clearly distinct from the seasonal vacancy of the past several decades or vacancy created by the passing uncertainty of a transitioning neighborhood:

“The vacant house problem in the city should be one of grave concern at this time to our municipal administrators, to our real estate agents and to those having the welfare of the city at heart. It is not a temporary but a growing evil that is confronting and threatening every owner of property. The number of vacant houses has grown and grown until at last there is common alarm in the matter, and justly so. What then are the causes producing this condition? There are many, but the fundamental one is purely economic—high taxes.”

Residents like “Pure White” and “Justice” won a victory on December 20, 1910, when Baltimore Mayor John Barry Mahool signed into law the West Segregation Ordinance, named for sponsor Council Samuel L. West who represented the northwestern neighborhood highlighted in the police report for the highest concentration of vacant houses.

The new law was the first local ordinance in the country to enforce racial segregation in housing as it forbid black residents from moving to designated “white blocks” and white residents from moving to designated “colored blocks.” Each block was designated according to the racial identity of the majority of each block’s residents in 1910 and the city police were tasked with enforcing the new policy.

While the West Segregation Ordinance was soon overturned as unconstitutional, it was followed by several more  attempts to enact a municipal law to enforce racial segregation. Often overlooked in this much-discussed chapter of Baltimore’s history of segregation, vacant housing played a critical role in stoking white fears and reinforcing a racialized perception of “blight” in the decades that followed.

The effort to promote racial segregation ultimately did little to address the structural issues around taxes and infrastructure costs that continued to promote disinvestment up until the beginning of WWI. This period also saw the emerging concern with the visibility of vacant houses as a symbol of the city’s perceived decline.  One letter, published on on March 5, 1912 and signed by “Belle Baltimore,” decried the sight of vacant houses as the city prepared to celebrate the Centennial of the Battle of Baltimore in 1914:

“While we are cleaning house to welcome visitors to Baltimore in June, there is one very offensive spectacle we should strive to remove. It is the sight of so many residences on our best avenues, vacant, dead and decaying houses, with staring, grimy windows covered with signs ‘For Rent’ or ‘For Sale,’ like ghastly invitations to a funeral.”

“Belle Baltimore” continued to complain about burdensome taxes required to support the investment in the suburban Annex where  “speculative builders” erected “row of these sardine boxes” that make Baltimore “more and more like a model workhouse or prison every year.” The letter concludes with a tone of finality:

“To escape unjust taxation people of means are taking refuge in apartments or in the suburbs…. Does not this state of things savor a little of the knights of the road, who became popular heroes by ‘robbing the rich to serve the poor?’ One thing is certain: Well-to-do people will shun cities infested by such gentry. Because of it Baltimore is already like a tree rotten at the core.”

In 1914, with the start of World War II, debates over vacant housing retreated as the home building industry ground to near complete halt. Construction permits for new dwellings in Baltimore dwindled from 2,484 in 1916, to 885 in 1917, and just 378 in 1918. During World War II, concern over blight often focused on housing “congestion” rather than vacancy, although clearly the issue remained present. After World War II, and throughout the period of urban renewal into the 1970s, the predecessors of today’s vacant house policies took shape. Over the past few decades, the scale and scope of issues around vacant houses has continued to grow.

Lansing Street demolition, Amy Davis, 2013 September 24. Baltimore Sun
Lansing Street demolition, Amy Davis, 2013 September 24. Baltimore Sun

Today, advocates for historic preservation and community development struggle to secure public support for substantial reinvestment in historic urban cores. Legacy city leaders from Detroit to Cleveland to Baltimore have retreated from what seemed to be an unattainable agenda of regional governance and adequate funding for affordable housing. Instead, we see strategic demolition and “blight elimination” championed as a short-term necessity in neighborhoods like Sandtown Winchester.

Just as the city experienced a century ago, many people want to define the city’s challenges as a “vacant house problem” – locating the issue in low-income African American communities alone. This definition places the sole responsibility to solve to problem on those residents, rather than acknowledging the complicity of Baltimore’s broader system of spatial inequality. Let’s work to make sure the next century offers a new definition of the “vacant house problem” and a new set of solutions.

We have a problem with vacant houses in Baltimore. Part one of a draft paper for the VAF Conference in Chicago.

This post is the first half of a paper I am working on for the 2015 Vernacular Architecture Forum conference in Chicago this June. The paper focuses on the history of vacant housing and demolition from the mid 19th to early 20th century. This is a draft so I’d welcome any initial thoughts, questions or suggestions.


We have a problem with vacant houses in Baltimore. A vacant might be a bank-owned brick townhouse from the 1970s; a narrow two-story rowhouse built for working-class whites in the 1910s; or a four-story 1870s mansion half-collapsed into the basement. Baltimore City estimates the city holds around 16,000 vacant properties — mostly attached rowhouses built before WWII.

Visitors to Baltimore won’t find vacant houses in every neighborhood. In the largely white area of Hampden, Remington and Medfield, the vacancy rate is less than 1% — around sixty houses. In the West Baltimore neighborhoods of Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park, over one-third of residential properties are vacant — totalling more than 2,000 vacant buildings.

It was in Sandtown on April 12 where a group of Baltimore police officers arrested Freddie Gray. A week later, Gray’s death from injuries he suffered in police custody sparked huge protests against police violence. Some residents marched and organized, others attacked local storefronts and burned police cars, prompting the city and state to bring in National Guard troops and impose a citywide curfew. Journalists from across the nation descended on Baltimore to write about the so-called “riots” and to ask the question: what’s the problem with Baltimore? How did the city get to be so poor, so violent and so segregated? Why does Baltimore have so many vacant houses?

Despite the confident explanations offered in newspaper editorials and television reports, over the past few weeks, these are not easy questions to answer. Even when people in Baltimore try to explain our “vacant house problem,” the responses often are incomplete at best and misleading at worst.

A professor at Johns Hopkins University might highlight Bethlehem Steel’s $1.5 billion loss in 1982 — a watershed in the city’s loss of good jobs to neoliberalism and globalization.

A neighborhood activist in Druid Heights might point back to the unrest that rocked the city after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, leaving vacant lots and vacant buildings that have never recovered.

A retiree living in Columbia who grew up shopping at downtown department stories may sadly recall when O’Neil’s Department Store closed the day after Christmas in 1955.

An amateur urban planner on Facebook might talk about how the city’s population peaked around 1 million in 1950 before falling more than a third to 620,961 in 2010.

Limited as they are, each of these stories has the power to shape policy around vacant housing. Do we invest in tearing vacant houses down or fixing them up? Can demolition solve Baltimore’s vacant house problem? Can historic preservation?

A recent Blight as Politics Symposium at the University of Michigan articulated the urgency of questioning narrowly framed, just-so stories of the urban crisis:

“With a few signal exceptions, discussions of ‘blight’ have proceeded in dehistoricized and depoliticized contexts oriented around narrow technical parameters, as if ‘blight’ was an easily defined and objective phenomenon instead of the spatial residue of racism and segregation, deindustrialization, disinvestment, and other fraught dynamics of American urban history.”

Baltimore’s vacant houses — an iconic symbol of the city’s poverty, violence and desolation — first appeared before 1982, before 1968, and before 1950. As early as 1880, the Baltimore City Police Department was trying to monitor and mitigate the problems of vacant houses in the city’s wealthy suburbs. In 1910, observers in Baltimore called vacant houses “a growing evil,” the source of “common alarm.” In 1932, one prominent local architect declared that the rowhouse had no potential for “modern and reasonably attractive” use; Baltimore’s “dying areas” were forced into a “hopeless future competition” with the suburbs.

The foundation of Baltimore’s current debate over what to do about vacant houses in Sandtown-Winchester has been laid down over the course of a century or more. The debate is framed by a long history of salvage and demolition, stories about the places we choose to forget, to tear down, and to salvage instead of save. In this way, we can read the history of vacants — how we describe them and what we do about them — as an alternate history of historic preservation itself.


Concerns over population loss and vacant housing in Baltimore date back nearly two centuries. Writing in 1831, publisher Hezekiah Niles reflected on the city’s population loss during the economic crisis of the early 1820s, recalling how “because of the want of employment in those years, [there was a] consequent removal of the people, to the north, south, east and west.” The city had recovered from the severe depression and Niles could then boast that, “There is hardly a house unoccupied, though a very large number was built the last season.”

Baltimore (1838), George W. Boynton. JScholarship
Baltimore (1838), George W. Boynton. JScholarship

With capital from men like Hezekiah Niles, as well as the labor from thousands of recent immigrants, enslaved and free blacks, Baltimore grew quickly. The city more than doubled in population between 1830 and 1850. Growth came with new patterns of land use around Baltimore’s downtown. Property-owners tore down hundreds of old homes to make way for new warehouses and commercial buildings.

In May 1847, the National Intelligencer on a rare demolition “deemed worthy of notice,” wrote:

“workmen are now engaged tearing down the very oldest house in Baltimore; to erect in its stead an elegant new warehouse. […] Daguerreotype sketches and other drawings were taken of it, to preserve as relics, prior to its demolition.”

In a later example, from January 1891, locals gathered at the scene of the demolition of a former suburban mansion overwhelmed by the city built up around it with a plan to take more than drawings. As the crowd watched the “quaint but pretentious little building of classic architecture” disappear “before the march of modern improvement” they “eagerly gathered “pieces of its mantel-pieces and bits of its woodwork […] for souvenirs.” The home, known as Tusculum, was fondly remembered as the host of a vibrant arts and poetry society in the early 1800s. Despite the building’s neglect, it was still occupied by a “family of colored people” who “made the noted Tusculum their home” but likely had little power to protest their eviction.

Photograph of Tusculum, c. 1891. Maryland Historical Society, [SVF] via MdHS Photographs Tumblr.
Photograph of Tusculum, c. 1891. Maryland Historical Society, [SVF] via MdHS Photographs Tumblr.
After demolition, the elements of an abandoned building could be turned into mementoes or into the very source of subsistence and survival. The hard times that Hezekiah Niles witnessed in the early 1820s returned again in wake of the Panic of 1893. In February 1895, the Sun reported how:

“The demolition of the Old City College building on North Howard street was eagerly watched all day yesterday by a crowd of persons armed with baskets or bags, and anxious to pick from the ruins some bits of wood to add to their scanty store of fuel at home.”

Perhaps some among the crowd took shelter in the city’s vacant houses. In the 1880s, many impoverished travelers – “tramps” – had been found “sleeping in the brick and limekilns of South and Southwest Baltimore.” A white person with no home could find a place to spend the night at a police station house, but as the Sun observed in 1888:

“A notable fact is the small number of colored tramps who call at the station-houses. This is not because there are no colored tramps, but because they are generally badly treated by their white brethren when lodging together.”

Evidence for the growing availability of vacant houses in the city can be found in an October 1898 account which observed defensively:

“Other cities have endeavored to make capital of reports of the very large number of vacant houses in Baltimore, claiming it as an evidence that this city is falling behind.”

The account continues to highlight a strong resurgence in home building – but, as the next decade illustrated, strong growth could paradoxically increase vacant housing. This combination of growth and inequality shaped a new response to vacant housing from metal thieves and the city police.


Between 1850 and 1880, the city’s population doubled again and new buildings had sprawled over the city limits and into “the Belt” – an area built up with factories and clusters of suburban cottages that surrounded the city to the east, west and north. Throughout this period, inadequate sewers and frequent outbreaks of disease encouraged many well-off residents to leave their homes every summer.

New and Enlarged Map of Baltimore City: Including Waverly, Hampden, All the Parks, and a Miniature Map of the State (1886), John F. Weishampel. JScholarship.
New and Enlarged Map of Baltimore City: Including Waverly, Hampden, All the Parks, and a Miniature Map of the State (1886), John F. Weishampel. JScholarship.

Seasonal vacancy illustrates the challenge of defining what makes a vacant house. Whether a property owner leaves their house unoccupied for a month or a year, when does it become vacant? The persistence and scale of seasonal vacancy between the 1860s and early 1900s, left many homes at risk of an illicit form of salvage and demolition – metal theft – and placed a new burden on Baltimore city and county police officers to protect the Baltimore’s vacant homes on behalf of their absent owners.

An typical example of metal theft at a vacant house appeared in March 1868 describing how thieves in the night “carried off, undetected, two chandeliers and six brackets valued at $125” from a vacant dwelling at 659 West Lombard Street. In 1877, the Sun described how a suburban home in northwest Baltimore standing “vacant for some months” was “entered by vandals and despoiled of nearly all its detachable metal fittings,” adding that “Residents of the belt complain that depredations of this kind are frequent.” In 1887, two men were arrested for taking “copper lining in bath-tubs, gas brackets, globes and lead pipe” from “unoccupied houses in the neighborhood of Lexington street and Fulton avenue.”

The police response to these threats was creative. In 1877, the officer encouraged property-owners cut “peep-holes” in their back fences “at convenient points for observation, through which the officers can have a full view of the rear of the premises without climbing over.”

In August 1881, the police asked local families to report their travel plans to local authorities creating what is likely the city’s earliest formal inventory of vacant buildings, as the Sun reported:

“This summer the exodus from Baltimore has been greater than usual, and there are probably some twelve or thirteen hundred houses vacant, mainly in the north and northwestern sections of the city. The protection of this property is left to the police, and how to preserve it intact has been a matter of careful consideration by the police authorities. Notifications that the families have removed are generally sent to Police Marshal Gray or to the captains of districts with requests that the houses be looked after.”

In 1897, concern over “Vacant House Robberies” led Baltimore police officers to patrol in “citizen dress” to try to catch thieves in the act. Baltimore Police Captain Solomon Freeburger offered a number of creative ideas as a solution including a plan to place younger officers in the neighborhoods with the greatest number of vacant homes, noting:

“In the residential parts of the city where there are great numbers of vacant houses, it would be well to place the young men who are active and alert. Daily inspection of all property left for the summer is practiced at present in this city.”

Freeburger even recommended electric burglar alarms calling them an “almost a perfect guarantee of a thief’s apprehension, or, at least, that he will be frightened off before accomplishing robbery.”

Metal theft is one of the earliest local examples of illicit and criminal activity that concentrated on vacant houses but it is far from the last.  In the 1910s and 1920s, police raided illegal stills and gambling halls in vacant houses. In the 1930s, officers made mass arrests of “vagrants,” people left homeless and unemployed by the Great Depression, who took shelter in the growing number of abandoned homes. In this way, vacant houses became more than just unoccupied buildings – they became seen a threat to public order that required an aggressive response by the police and public policy.


Continue reading part two. Featured photograph by Ben Marcin via Slate.

Before Freddie Gray: “The Police Board… made an order forbidding public parades”

Yesterday, thousands of people assembled in downtown Baltimore to protest the death of Freddie Gray. Despite a largely peaceful assembly, media coverage of the protests has focused on the handful of vehicles and storefronts damaged during the day. This morning, I appreciated activist Deray McKesson’s reflections on troubling issues with the coverage of the protest  and the false equivalency between property damage and violence. While researching the history of police violence in Baltimore, I came across an early example of the police response to a black public assembly that I’d like to juxtapose with yesterday’s events.

John T. Marshal
John T. Gray from “Our police” (1888)

The account of this police response, published in 1883, describes how the Baltimore Police Marshal John T. Gray “took every precaution for the prevention of an outbreak” of violence during a celebratory parade and political rally that followed the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. It continues to share how black men in Baltimore organized “dozens of military companies,” armed with “old army muskets” and drilled on Baltimore’s streets. After the shooting young man by members of one of these regiments, Marshal John T. Gray attacks one of the companies (unclear if it was the same group implicated in the shooting), arrests their officers, and disarms the men.

It is hard to interpret this account from our contemporary perspective. I haven’t been able to fully corroborate this account in the Baltimore Sun, but if we accept this account as accurate it is important to note that the Baltimore police didn’t respond to the shooting by attempting arrest the individuals directly involved. Instead, the Baltimore Police Board “made an order forbidding public parades” and Police Marshal Gray targeted the most prominent company of black troops – the “crack” Lincoln Guard. By disarming and dismantling these organizations, the Baltimore police eliminated an important vehicle for black Baltimoreans to mobilize Republican voters and defend themselves against violence.

To be clear: I’m not arguing that the actions of the Baltimore police in 2015 are equivalent to the actions of the police in 1871. I’m not trying to suggest that the Lincoln Guard are the same as the protestors here today. However, the story contains important elements–elite fear of black public assembly, racist images of black political action, and the role of the police in protecting an ambiguous public interest–that suggest an important continuity between Baltimore in the 1870s and today.

On November 1, 1870, the Baltimore Sun, then strongly opposed to the Republican party and black suffrage, reported on a Democratic political rally where the images of black men armed with bayonets and black elected officials depicted as criminals were prominently displayed:

A grand demonstration of the democratic conservative party, comprising an immense and brilliant procession, with torches, banners and devices, and an overwhelming mass meeting in Monument Square, took place last night upon the call of the democratic executive committee of the city. […]

Thirteenth Ward–James Cosgove, chief marshal.–The display in this ward was good though in point of number not so large. A wagon, drawn by four horses, contained a monument, upon the front of which was a life-size portrait of Washington. […] There was a representation of a company of colored men pointing their bayonets at the place of holding the polls, with the inscription, “What free American has come to under radical rule.” There was also a picture of a man in the act of stealing spoons, with inscription as to type of the radical Congress, &c.

At the same rally, Thomas Swann, the immediate past Governor of Maryland and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, shared his own comments on the threat of organized black voters:

[General Creswell] had come here to [Baltimore] to marshal his negro crowd of voters, and to attempt to overawe the democracy with threats of what the President would do with his soldiers.

Baltimore’s newly enfranchised black citizens, including many veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops, could clearly see this procession and assembly as a serious threat to their own hard-won rights. But the police, of course, did not shut down Democratic rallies or parades. And in January 1870 the Democratic party (and the Baltimore Sun) opposed the Enforcement Act of 1871 empowering President Ulysses S. Grant to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in trying to end the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

This history can help us think about what we will fight for and what we won’t. Here is the account for your consideration:


As Marshal of Baltimore Mr. Gray achieved a national reputation by the reforms he instituted and by the skill with which lie handled his force on many critical occasions. The great Emancipation Jubilee of the negroes in 1870 was the first serious occasion upon which Marshal Gray’s skill as a policeman showed itself prominently. This was the celebration by the negroes of their emancipation. In Baltimore, as well as in all the other Southern cities, certain classes of the white population still harbored a bitter feeling against the negroes, intensified by the offensive manner in which many of the latter had conducted themselves since their emancipation. The law abiding citizens, therefore looked with trepidation upon the preparations of the colored folk for this jubilee, and Marshal Gray took every precaution for the prevention of an outbreak. The day came and one of the most enormous civic parades ever witnessed in the United States took place. Fully ninety per cent of all the negroes in Baltimore and the surrounding country took part, either in the parade itself or as applauding spectators. It is estimated that not less than 30,000 negroes were in line. The parade marched past a certain point from before noon till well into the night before the last platoon had gone by.

The Fifteenth Amendment, Library of Congress
The Fifteenth Amendment from the Library of Congress

The populace of both races were apparently willing to fight and a general collision seemed imminent all day, but the police were everywhere, with their eyes on every man who seemed belligerently inclined. The moral influence of the force seemed to subdue the would-be rioters, and though a few unimportant brawls, took place the jubilee passed off without serious trouble anywhere in the city. Marshal Gray received flattering commendations from the newspapers and from citizens for the admirable manner in which the peace of the city was preserved during the critical period.

After the Emancipation Jubilee a military spirit seemed suddenly to seize the negro population of Baltimore. Dozens of military companies were formed, which drilled every evening in the streets much to the annoyance of quiet people. After the war an immense number of old-fashioned muskets were stored in the city by the United States Government. Of the old army muskets alone there were more than 12,000 stand. By some means these arms all fell into the hands of the negroes and they used them for their military companies. These organizations banded into regiments and numbered themselves the First, Second, Third, etc., Maryland Colored Regiments, although they were never admitted to the National Guard, nor recognized by the State military authorities. The South being at that time in a state of reconstruction the negroes were suffered to commit many offenses against the public peace which would never have been attempted or permitted on the part of the whites. Before long the negro regiments began the practice of taking full possession of every street they entered. They would march with fixed bayonets through the principal streets and clear everything before them from curb to curb. Wagons, carriages, and horse cars had to be turned back before them or else they were driven back under bayonet charge.

One evening in May 1871, the colored troops came down Baltimore street with fixed bayonets as usual, turning people and vehicles into side streets, when three young men who were talking together on the curb refused to move on and clear the way for the procession. A charge was made upon them and they were forced to flee around the nearest corner. As they went several of the negroes fired a volley at them and, one of the young men, a son of a well-known German citizen fell dead. He was shot through the heart. It turned out that he was a Republican in politics and had been a great friend of the negroes. They alleged that he threw a stone into the ranks of the procession but this was positively denied by every bystander. The funeral of the young German was the occasion of a large popular demonstration. Public indignation long since aroused by the offensiveness of the colored military organizations found voice in a general demand for their immediate suppression. As the negroes were in a certain sense under Federal protection, this was a difficult matter to accomplish.

The Police Board, however, made an order forbidding public parades through the streets by any military organization not connected with the National Guard or National Government. When this order was read in the meeting places of the colored companies it was received with hoots and jeers of derision. The night that the order was issued, learning that the negroes were about to parade as usual, Marshal Gray sent to the headquarters of the “Lincoln Guard,” the “crack” company of the city, and warned them not to parade. Captain Delanty was laughed at when he delivered the order, and his voice drowned by the howls of the negroes.

He then stood outside of the building with his policemen. The negroes formed in the street but at the first step they took after the captain gave the order to march the police rushed up and arrested a large number of them. The others ran back into the building. The police sent those they had captured to the station house. They then entered the building and after a short struggle captured the arms of the remainder. Their muskets gone and their leaders in jail, the militiamen became disheartened and broke up their company.

On learning the fate of their principal company, a number of other organizations surrendered their arms, and in the course of a few months practically all the muskets formerly used by the negro troops had been captured by the police. The arms were afterward sent to Fort McHenry, as they were the property of the United States.


Source: Folsom, De Francias. Our Police: A History of the Baltimore Force from the First Watchman to the Latest Appointee. J. D. Ehlers & Company, 1888. (113-116)

How the Park Board “went along” as Baltimore turned playgrounds into police stations

On August 14, 1957, the Baltimore Sun published an editorial inspired by the proposal to locate a new Civic Center in Druid Hill Park despite strong objections by the Baltimore Park Board. More broadly, the piece highlights some of the consequential choices that Baltimore made in the 1940s and 1950s when they traded parkland for police stations and highways. This is, in part, the story of how the Western District Police Station replaced a playground at Mount Street and Riggs Avenue.


“Under the city charter the Park Board has “charge and control” of all park property. A guardian for the park system, with the power to say “no,” is needed because proposals to encroach on park property are being made all the time. Sometimes public interest justifies the proposals. Sometimes it does not. The Park Board is there to make such determinations, always with the welfare of the parks in mind.

We offer a few examples, just to show the kind of pressure the park system is under:

The State wanted 21 acres of undeveloped land in Herring Run Park in connection with plans for the Northeast expressway and the approach to the Harbor Tunnel. The Park Board went along with this.

This had the effect of cutting off 50 other acres of Herring Run Park. The city asked for these acres for a site for a new wholesale market. The Park Board went along. Total loss to Herring Run: 71 acres.

In planning an extension of Perring parkway, the city wanted 5 acres of the Mount Pleasant golf course. The Park Board was able to acquire some partially compensating acreage and went along.

The city concluded that a playground at Fulton and Riggs avenues, for which the Park Board planned further development, would be the ideal site for a new police station. The Park Board was finally convinced, and co-operated.

The city also wanted an acre of land, near Hurley and Fonthill avenues, for another police station. This was park of Gwynns Falls Park, but the Park Board, finding it not particularly desirable for park purposes ,went along.

Park land along Mount Royal terrace was plainly needed for the Jones Falls expressway. The board yielded the land after a scheme had been worked out which gives compensating advantages in return for the lost land.

Some time back, to relieve traffic congestion, the city proposed extensions of McCulloh street and Druid Hill avenue to drive through the southwest corner of Druid Hill Park. The Park Board acquiesced in this plea of necessity, after standing up for a minimum of impairment.

At one stage in the civic-center proceedings, a site in Clifton Park was proposed. Northing came of this.

At another stage in the same proceedings, a proposal was made to take over the small park adjacent to the Mount Royal Station. Nothing came of this.

These are merely a few of the more conspicuous episodes in what might be called a continuous war of attrition against the parks. They point up the necessity for a semi-autonomous body with power to pass judgment on all schemes for reducing out precious park acreage.

But now the authority of this body, the Park Board, has been defied. When the Mayor and City Council seized 30 acres of Druid Hill Park land for a civic center site, they did so against the will of the Park Board. If this seizure stands unchallenged, a shadow lies across the board’s supposed powers. The guardian of our park system will have been disarmed.


Source: “Disarmed.” The Sun (1837-1989). August 14, 1957. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Image: Protesters sit outside the Baltimore Police Department’s Western District police station at the end of a march for Freddie Gray, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) via WTOP.