I am standing on the roof of 1216 E. Baltimore St., just off the corner of Central Avenue, staring across the skyline of downtown, a fabled stretch of Lombard Street and the distant cranes of the Dundalk Marine Terminal.

This is ground zero of Baltimore’s original Hebrew enclave, once home to some 10,000 Jews, more than two dozen neighborhood shuls, many no more than a rowhouse. From my perch, I am close enough to the Lloyd Street Synagogue to hit the 174-year-old building with a soggy matzoh ball. 

In the way-back machine of imagination (and the contraption of a cartoon dog named Mr. Peabody), I am transported to 1913 and the first day of summer when the building opened as the Jewish Educational Alliance’s Michael S. Levy Memorial Building.

It was a showplace “settlement house” erected by the JEA to provide any and all needs — including milk to mothers and their babies — for local Jews and those newly arrived from Eastern Europe.

“In those days, East Baltimore’s Jewish community [was] fighting to emerge from the status of poor immigrants to self-sustaining Americans,” wrote in 1955 the late Baltimore labor leader A.D. Glushakow, a long-ago member of the JEA Student League.

On the sidewalk below — between Central Avenue and Aisquith Street, just east of the old cable car powerhouse that became Hendler Creamery — a crowd has gathered. Not to cheer the local pols (Baltimore Mayor James H. Preston and Maryland Gov. Phillips Lee Goldsborough were present) but to hear a Jewish men’s troupe called the Meyerbeer Singing Society.

But I am neither above nor below. And though I would gladly visit the Mobtown of a century ago if possible (and, given Baltimore’s current unfortunate epoch, perhaps stay and work for one of the many newspapers then flourishing), the reality is that 1216 E. Baltimore St. is coming down.

Ronald McDonald House
Baltimore’s new Ronald McDonald House for children with long-term illnesses and their families. (Photo by Alan Feiler, Jmore)

By now, the fabled address has very likely been returned to its early 19th century status as an open lot. It is currently owned by the Helping Up Mission, the Christian, mitzvah-driven nonprofit ministering to those who have run out of chances in 21st-century America. Helping Up’s headquarters are directly across from the facade of the old Hendler’s, all that remains of the ice cream factory as the entire block is reconfigured around the city’s new Ronald McDonald House for children with long-term illnesses and their families.

Helping Up had no interest in the former JEA building (which has changed hands many times over the decades), buying it from its previous owner to put up a 210-bed shelter for women and children. Groundbreaking for the new structure is scheduled for September.

If not for an early 1950s makeover by the Seafarers International Union (now in Canton), the Colonial Revival JEA building designed by Joseph Evans Sperry (architect of the magnificent Bromo Seltzer Tower and the Eutaw Place Temple) might have been saved.

In the words of Walter W. Gallas of Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, the SIU “mucked up” the significance of the JEA building — among other offenses, “squaring off” a row of arched windows facing Baltimore Street — after purchasing it from the Jewish community in 1952.

Such “vague modernist touches,” said Gallas, destroyed the building’s historical merit, making it vulnerable to the wrecking ball.

Just as the first building to occupy the address — a Universalist church that became the city’s original St. Wenceslaus Bohemian Catholic Church that became The Princess Theatre with live Yiddish entertainment — was torn down by the JEA to make way for their palace of edification, learning and recreation.

I was long familiar with the SIU hall — visiting as a kid with my tugboat engineer father, catching a ship there the summer after high school — but never knew upon what bones it had been built; did not know that once upon a time there were Stars of David on the brick between those front windows.

Perhaps when the Helping Up shelter for women and children opens (as planned) in September of 2021, a copy of this magazine will be laying around and residents will know what I did not.

Rafael Alvarez can be reached via orlo.leini@gmail.com.