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Hebrew Orphan Asylum, West Baltimore's "jewel," could have been demolished

Above: Hebrew Orphan Asylum. (Baltimore: Wm. J.C. Dullany Company, 1894) (Photo: )

Historic and beautiful, but terribly dilapidated, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum at 2700 Rayner Avenue in west Baltimore has been getting some preservation love lately.

Coppin State University and Baltimore Heritage have submitted the building — possibly America’s oldest orphanage — to the National Register of Historic Places, a move that Coppin Heights Community Development Corp Executive director Gary Rodwell said is meant to show they’re “making a concerted effort to preserve this jewel.”

Rodwell discussed their efforts in the May Urbanite and told the Brew that Coppin “currently remains committed to preserving the orphan asylum until such time that we can create a development plan” that makes sense.

But the Asylum was not always so carefully nestled within preservationists’ safety nets. Before he arrived at Coppin, Rodwell said, the University considered demolishing the orphanage, along with other buildings in the former hospital complex that were ultimately torn down in 2006 or 2007.

“There has been demolition on the site. There were two other buildings and a bridge that were on the site. The University and the State of Maryland cleared the land,”  Rodwelll said, calling it “an eyesore.”

The University “stepped up to the plate” and partnered with the state to demolish the structures, he said, describing them as creating “a tremendous burden, a blight, and safety issues for the neighborhood.”

So what does Rodwell think should happen now to the magnificent hulking 137-year-old building, possibly the oldest orphanage in the United States?

“There has to be a plan with 40,000 square feet that are historic in nature…that’s in concert with the University, neighborhood and the region,” he said.

A small business incubator, a training center for specified job opportunities, senior housing, or a home for state or local agencies are all uses that Rodwell said he could imagine fitting with the personality of the space. “Whatever it was would have to be a mixed use.”

Hebrew Orphan Asylum, present day (Photo by Baltimore Heritage)

Hebrew Orphan Asylum, present day (Photo by Baltimore Heritage)

Coppin spends $8,000 to $10, 000 a month to keep the structure from further deteriorating, Rodwell said. Buildings have to be boarded up, the roof has collapsed during snow storms, and steel has been added in lieu of wooden support to “keep things together and up.”

“Naturally given these times and finances…that’s a pretty hefty commitment…so there have been times, prior to this last president coming on board, when Coppin has looked to remove the University from having to bear the brunt of that burden.”

Now, though, Rodwell said, despite the challenges, current president Reginald S. Avery and Baltimore Heritage are committed to making sure this piece of Baltimore’s cultural and architectural history is protected.

Interior staircase within the asylum (Photo by Baltimore Heritage)

Interior staircase within the asylum (Photo by Baltimore Heritage)

Hebrew Orphan Asylum, present day interior (Photo by Baltimore Heritage)

Hebrew Orphan Asylum, present day interior (Photo by Baltimore Heritage)

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