The PJ Tatler

Baltimore is So Broke It's Considering Selling or Leasing Some of its Landmarks

H. L. Mencken is once alleged to have described Baltimore, MD as looking like it was built on the ruins of a once-great medieval city. Driving into town from either north or south, along the JFX or in from I-95, it’s hard to argue with that. The rowhouses rolling up and down the hills remind of Dickensian London. The colonial-era and 19th century churches poking up here and there lend it a Gothic feel. The old sugar factory that occupies the Inner Harbor attests to the city’s manufacturing and seafaring eras. The big London Fog factory alongside the JFX is surely an ad agency or something else by now. Baltimore today is a city full of landmarks but little money, its population on the decline for decades. Even the Inner Harbor’s 1970s renaissance hasn’t brought residents back in. They just visit from Howard County or up north from Owings Mills. Like most decent-sized cities, people with enough money and sense know that it’s a city that’s fine to live near, but not in. The taxes and crime rates are just too high. The politics are insane. Parking is a hassle. The schools are a joke.

So what’s a city full of ghosts to do? Find a way to make money from some, I guess. So Baltimore is looking to make some cash in the present from the relics of its past.

News that Baltimore officials are considering selling or leasing as many as 16 of the city’s historic landmarks — including the iconic Shot Tower and the War Memorial Building — has sparked alarm and outrage among people who fear allowing them to fall into private hands could lead to the loss of a priceless historical legacy.

No one wants to see these magnificent architectural gems turned into fast-food emporiums or low-end strip malls. But if the city handles the matter carefully, at least some of them could be transferred in a way that ensures they will be well cared for and preserved for future generations.

As long as they don’t turn For McHenry into a Disneyland…

I have an idea for one of Baltimore’s more obscure landmarks. When I worked on the Laura Ingraham show, I lived north of the city so I took the MARC train from West Baltimore station down to Union Station in DC. It was a miserable ride at an ungodly early hour; I mostly catnapped. Across the street from that station is a crumbling old hulk of a building, stone and brick made dark with a century plus of smog and storms. It’s the American Ice Company building, Plant #2. That plant has been in disuse for long decades, so much so that there is a tree growing out of its tall smokestack. It fits Mencken’s medieval ruins description to a tee. But it’s on the National Register as a historic place. It ought to be either a museum or an upscale eatery with a glossy retro cigar bar, or both.

The American Ice Company is one of those companies that today, the government might try to bail out because of its political connections. It was part of Charles Morse’s “ice trust,” which would play a role in the Tammany Hall scandal of 1900 and the great stock panic of 1907. American Ice served a need, harvesting ice during the winters from Maine, and transporting that ice to other cities for families and businesses to use during the rest of the year. A bad ice harvest at the turn of the century — global warming? — prompted the development of ice making technology. Until about 1905, making ice wasn’t a mainstream capability. The American Ice Company then became a major ice manufacturer. So the ice harvesting enterprise gave way to the ice making enterprise. Because ice was such a hot commodity, it was open to corrupt deals and politics.

In that one plant, which is an eyesore now, a museum could tell the story of technological development, national political and financial scandals, unscrupulous stock speculators and empire builders, industrial anachronism, and just how far we’ve come in a hundred years. Making ice is so routine now that we never even think of it. Our fridges make it automatically and spit it out without us having to do anything more than pushing a glass against a lever.

There are problems with this idea of turning the old plant into something useful. Plant #2 is a busted up eyesore, with broken windows, boarded up gaps and probably structural issues. It’s not in a nice part of town. Baltimore is a bit of a checker board, with good and not so good neighborhoods patched side by side. Plant #2 is in one of the rough blocks. Being on the National Register is a blessing and a curse — the plant is protected, but there are limits on what any new owner could do with it. A museum of some sort might fly, but making it a slick, upscale eatery would be a harder sell. On the other hand, an upscale spot that also respects Baltimore’s history and keeps the plant mostly intact could help revitalize the neighborhood. It could make that West Baltimore station more than a blip on the MARC line.

I’d love to see it happen. It’s better than letting the thing rot.