Tuesday, June 21, 2016

From asylum for the insane to psychiatric hospital: 222 years of history on Spring Grove

As announced Friday last week, the quadrennial Baltimore County rezoning process and one of its larger parcels proposed for rezoning merit a deeper look into the now decades old saga around Spring Grove, the proposed Promenade Project and what makes southwest Baltimore County tick.

This article is about a truly amazing piece of land that makes insiders yawn because of the hundreds of hours in meetings spent discussing its future. But everyone who sees it for the first time hops with excitement.
Spring Grove: Historic campus  (Photo: Philipsen)

Between the yawing and the giddiness about this site, there seems to be little real progress.  As any good planner would suggest, it would be advisable to look at a site in a holistic way before one leaps into issues of subdivision, surplus declaration, land disposition, re-zoning or competing uses. Sure, there have been a number of reports, charrettes and task forces, but their focus was on what the State would need to continue to run a viable hospital and what lands it could dispose of "for development". A 2011 report even gets at some of the bigger questions, such as Maryland's role in the innovation economy, the relation of those upstream lands to the health of the Bay ("Land-Bay concept plans") but never integrated those questions in the recommendations for redevelopment or a real masterplan.

Nearly 200 acres owned by the State of Maryland in an urbanized area, that in itself is a rarity and should warrant a big picture approach. What is on it, how does it look, what does the site tell us? What role could this architecturally amazing site with its rich cultural history as a landscape play in the context of the redevelopment and re-invention of the older inner ring suburbs of Catonsville, Arbutus and Landsdowne? A site with a history which goes 222 or at least 164 years back, depending on what one uses as the starting point.
Spring Grove campus map

Anyone looking at Spring Grove for the first time is struck by the beauty of the land, the history and the buildings as well as the obvious neglect and the utter disrespect for the site's integrity.

There is no historic landmark designation, no historic district, no integration of the site into any historic tour or even into a recreational network. Worse, hawking off this unique piece of land parcel by parcel is already in full swing without consideration of a larger picture or the potential this site would offer if its integrity would be maintained. That is a shame and the blame doesn't go to those who take advantage of what they can snatch up but to the land-owner (the State) and the jurisdiction responsible for big picture planning (the County).
Of the 189.7 acres, approximately 41.9 acres are natural stream valleys and associated forest buffers as defined by Baltimore County and/or Maryland Department of the Environment and must be preserved.  A stream valley associated with the West Branch of the Patapsco River divides the site into multiple parcels.(2011 Redevelopment Plan)
There are very few places in Maryland that date as far back as 1794. Even fewer that are over 189 acres large. (The 425 acre farm belonging to Spring Grove became what is UMBC in 1963). Still, Spring Grove in Catonsville is such as site, it is the home of the second oldest psych clinic in the US (the oldest is in Williamsburg). (History). In spite of its size and age, few people today know about this site, its historic building, its specimen trees and the rolling campus. Partly this may have to do with repressing a bad history of psychiatric polices and practices that were only abolished in 1949 at a time when the hospital grounds were most crowded with 3,400 patients.
Original Spring Grove design

It hadn't started so bad, and the initial hospital was not located on the current site.Initially founded as a retreat for ailing mariners the initial hospital was Baltimore's first and tended to stressed out soldiers but also general medicine. Three years after the founding of the Retreat, the City of Baltimore was founded and one year after that the land area of the retreat (6.75 acres) became part of the City when the land was purchased from a Captain Yellot under a State bill. Thus, interaction between a private citizen, the State and a local jurisdiction goes back 218 years. Then and now State bills seem to have been designed to benefit a private citizen.
"The original mission of the new hospital, as established by the General Assembly in 1797, was to provide "for the relief of indigent sick persons, and for the reception and care of lunatics" (DHMH History site)
When the hospital building was completed sometime between 1798 and 1800 it was called the Public Hospital at Baltimore and several outbreaks of yellow fever were battled there. The original psyche ward was located on territory that is known today as Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Bucolic setting: Historic mansion  (Photo: Philipsen)

The move to the aforementioned 136 acre Catonsville site came only in 1852 when a piece of land near the town of Catonsville was purchased that was then known as Owings Advenure. A notable architect, J.Crawford Neilson, a co-founder of the American Institute of Architects in 1857, was hired as the architect, but construction of the new hospital facility was immediately hampered by the Civil War.
On October 7, 1872 the Maryland Hospital for the Insane officially relocated from its original site in Baltimore to its current site at Spring Grove. On that date, it transferred staff and 112 patients to the newly completed building. (The original building at Spring Grove, known in later years as the "Central Building," and then as the "Main Building" or the "Administration Building" or simply as "Old Main," was demolished in 1964. However, what had once been the Main Building's powerhouse and gas works, a building that was built at the same time and was originally adjacent to, but not part of, the Main building survives today as what is known as the Laundry Building. In addition, several buildings that were built at the site a matter of only several years after the Main Building opened are still extant. These include the original firehouse; and several other outbuildings(DHMH History site)
Clearly, Spring Grove is one of the large puzzle pieces with the "town" of Catonsville and the UMBC university campus being the other ones. Those large puzzle pieces should be carefully calibrated so that they enhance each other, provide synergy and be together larger and better than on their own. Whalen properties, which has amassed significant land holdings around Spring Grove in hopes for its Promenade Development, is now an additional player adding yet another puzzle piece.
Granite campus buildings  (Photo: Philipsen)

Done right all these unique pieces of land and developments could lift Southwest Baltimore County to an all new level. But for that to happen the piecemeal, small parcel by parcel, slice by slice opportunity-approach to development has to stop. Not only will it destroy a historically valuable resource, it will also destroy the potential that lies in an orchestrated and coordinated approach in which a bigger picture is considered. A picture that is bigger than the opportunity-development approach of of a ballfield here, a hospital facility there, sprinkled with a few hotels, offices and retail big boxes and a suburban university campus that has gained a significant reputation and status but is still quite awful to look at.
Forgotten: Decay on the campus  (Photo: Philipsen)

Baltimore County, with its industrial past, has extended White Marsh Boulevard from White Marsh to Eastern Avenue in an attempt to reverse or compensate for de-industrialization. The County designated a huge swath of land for warehousing, commercial and industrial use in the hope of recapturing jobs. That rather sweeping approach was dashed by a world that developed differently. (Recently mixed use and residential use was allowed).

 It is time to focus on the southwest in the context of the next economy. UMBC and its strong research component could be the driver. Spring Grove as the County's "Innovation and Eco District"?

Raleigh Durham's (much larger) Research Triangle is still economically successful but it's office park  style is not popular with young knowledge workers who are in search of authenticity and urbanity. A site with 164 years of history and a historic streetcar main street nearby could be an attractive location to re-invent the research park concept; not in the sterile glass and lawns manner of the Research Triangle, but in the style of the country's traditional university campuses. Just the kind of campus that UMBC currently doesn't have but that sits dormant, waiting for revival just a stone throw away.

In the next segment we will take a closer look at the Promenade Development concepts.
Spring Grove power plant (Photo: Philipsen)

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated for various language errors

Links:
Facts about Spring Grove, Catonsville Patch
SUN archives Spring Grove