Historic Baltimore Drugstore Threatened
The site of a 1955 lunch counter sit-in faces demolition in Baltimore.
By Sarah Marloff | Online Only | Feb. 4, 2011
Baltimore's historic Read's Drugstore, site of an early Civil Rights protest, faces possible demolition, along with 13 other downtown buildings, despite a decade-long fight to protect the structures.
The four-story Art Deco drugstore was designed and built in 1933 by the firm Smith & May, and is one of a group of buildings making up what is now called the "Superblock," once a bustling commercial center in the West Side of downtown Baltimore.
"This was Baltimore's front door, and today it's filled with African American history," says Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage Inc.
Two decades after it was built, Read's Drugstore became the site of one of the country's first Civil Rights protests. On Jan. 20, 1955—five years before the better-known Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter sit-in—a group of students from Morgan College (now Morgan State University) organized a sit-in to protest segregation.
"It provided a model that other campuses picked up," Hopkins says.
Read's desegregated its lunch counter soon after the student protest.
The entire "Superblock" is closely tied to the Civil Rights Movement. "It's not just this singular event that made this area significant," Hopkins says. "During this time there was also the 'Orchid and Onion' campaign, where residents would hand out orchids to all the desegregated businesses and onions to those where blacks were banned."
In 1999, the West Side of downtown Baltimore was identified as one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, after the city released plans to tear down 150 buildings. Soon after, the area was placed on the National Register, and in 2001 the Maryland Historical Trust signed a memorandum to protect the 17 historic buildings and uphold preservation requirements for development.
But last October, the Baltimore Development Corporation submitted a $150 million development proposal calling for 14 of the buildings to be either partially or entirely demolished.
Proponents of preservation were shocked last December when J. Rodney Little, director of the Maryland Historical Trust, released a letter that "inexplicably gave approval of the project," says Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland. "Even though, in my view, the proposal did not comply with the preservation requirements."
According to M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corporation, approval came with five conditions, including documentation of any pre-1850 buildings that will be razed. The Maryland Historical Trust also stipulated that the corporation continue to work within boundaries set forth by the memorandum.
"We're confident that by working together, we can honor and respect the people of the 1955 sit-in," says Brodie. "We're looking into preserving something of Read's, possibly on site, or in an exhibit either at Reginald F. Lewis Museum or Morgan University."
BDC is hoping to finalize its plans for the "Superblock" by the end of the year, then move forward with demolition and construction. Work on the "Superblock" is likely to take at least two years.
But preservationists are still concerned that a piece of the city's history will be lost. In an attempt to rescind the approval letter issued last December, preservationists including Hopkins, Gearhart, and Nell Ziehl, program officer in the National Trust's Southern Field Office, recently testified at a February 3 hearing held by the board members of the Maryland Historical Trust.
According to Ziehl, the board members stated that they strongly disapproved of the proposed Superblock and requested that director Little rescind his letter. "This is a terrible project that should not go forward as proposed," says Ziehl. "We, at the National Trust, are currently considering a nomination for the ‘Superblock' alone for this year's 11 Most Endangered Places."
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