Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The long journey towards a renaissance of Pennsylvania Avenue

“It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten”
(Ghanaian Proverb included in the ULI Penn North TAP report)
In the early 1960s, Pennsylvania Avenue was the cultural Nil of Baltimore's black community and the Sphinx Club shone like a diamond on that shimmering river of lights. "The Avenue" had reached its zenith. Rhythm and blues pulsated from the stage of the Royal Theater and jazz crescendoed in the avenue's night spots.
And none of the avenue's night spots had the cozy elegance of the Sphinx, a private members-only club that booked names like Sam Cooke, Gloria Lynn, Damita Jo and Redd Foxx. (Baltimore SUN, Feb 13, 1992)
Sphinx Club redevelopment proposal 2011 (ArchPlan Inc.)
 In 2009 cozy elegance was hard to imagine among the rubble of a burnt bar, a collapsed roof and a soggy floor that threatened to give way any moment. But just prying open the boarded doors stirred interest among the few people coming by. "I remember the Sphinx Club" was a common refrain, "are you restoring it" the next question.  The future of the Sphinx Club looked promising in 2013 when the BBJ reported this
On first glance, passersby might not know the Sphinx Club on Pennsylvania Avenue was once a high-profile club and a springboard for renowned black entertainers. These days, it looks no different from any other abandoned building. But 18 months from now when the building is slated to be fully renovated, its restoration will pay homage to its history and look to bring a new reputation to Druid Heights.
The $8.4 million project not only provides for the restoration of the Sphinx Club, which will ultimately become a restaurant and small entertainment venue, but it also includes a new complex next door to house a museum, business incubator and music school. “We’re trying to basically incorporate what we see as a need,” said project manager Roscoe Johnson III, real estate development director for the Druid Heights Community Development Corp., the organization behind the development. “We need to help create jobs, we need to establish additional businesses.” Ultimately, Johnson said, he hopes the project not only fills voids in the community, but also serves as a spark for more businesses to follow suit. 
The Sphinx Club buildings as they stand since 1994
Four years later everything continued to look like it had in 2013 or in 1996. The boards came off once again, contractor trucks pulled up to the building and once again residents stopped to ask what would be done to the Sphinx Club. This time, though, the project was simply stabilization to prevent that the remainder of the two buildings would entirely collapse. With money from the Historic Trust and also project CORE the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation (DHCDC) took a baby step towards rehabilitation.  With the stabilization money the rubble in the back was cleared, the sagging floors were removed, tons of debris that had fallen into the basement was hauled away, trees that had grown inside the building were cut, new foundations and floors and now, finally a new roof installed. The baby step turned out to be much more complicated than imagined, thanks to the complication that the historic Sphinx building was really two old rowhouse between which the party wall had been removed and replaced with a complicated structural system of steel and wood spanning over the width of two buildings making a roof not a simple as on a normal rowhouse.

Soon the contractor, McCoy Framing, will pull off again, the doors and windows will be boarded again and the building will continue its wait for a better future. But at least it will be dry and hopefully nobody will set another fire.
When the Sphinx Club was auctioned

The nine year ordeal from ambitious plans to a modest stabilization show how difficult it is to redevelop in a deeply disinvested community. The initial tandem vision of a family restaurant and performance space cum Negro League Baseball Museum fell apart when a development partner who had done a similar project in Chicago walked away from the deal and a Negro League baseball museum was instead opened in Baltimore County. Since then other potential partners came and went to partner with DHCDC. So far, the rehabilitation and new construction initially estimated to cost about $8 million proved to be a lift too heavy.

DHCDC has not given up yet and sees the Sphinx Club as a part in a multi-prong approach that involves residences, commercial development and services. A few blocks up Pennsylvania Avenue another phase of the Bakerview townhomes on will have a ground-breaking on Baker Street this summer. The development will joing 17 previously completed townhomes sitting just one block over from a planned large park that is a key component of the Green Network Plan hatched by the Planning Department this spring. (The comment period closed on 4/30). The idea of a large green space on Division street goes as far back as a 2000 when the community prepared a masterplan for Druid Heights and recognized the incredible concentration of vacant houses at Baker and Division Streets. Many of those vacants have since been torn down without giving the community much in their place for which to cheer.
Pennsylvania Avenue at Fremont  (Photo: Philipsen)

In 2015, the year of the unrest the Urban Land Institute conducted a small charrette type planning session (TAP) for Pennsylvania Avenue and its intersection with North Avenue not far from the Sphinx Club as part of a series of investigations into ailing commercial corridors initiated by the previous mayor (LINCS).  In the report published a bit later this is given as the area's strength:
The legendary, dynamic, and shamefully overlooked history of Pennsylvania Avenue is the single greatest asset that the neighborhoods have at their disposal. It is a unifying principle around which divided communities can organize. It is a brand under which new businesses can grow. It is an identity that can draw customers and tourists from outside the Corridor – not to mention from around the country.
ULI used Memphis' Beale Street as an example of a revival of an African American entertainment district.
Today, Memphis’ Beale Street is a beloved destination for cultural, historical, and culinary tourism. But it is easy to forget how similar it once was to today’s Pennsylvania Avenue, which makes it critical to learn the many lessons that it has to teach us. [...]Slowly over time, the core of Beale Street began to turn around. And by the 1990s, it had became a symbol of Memphis’ overall economic development strategy: leveraging its cultural, musical, architectural, and culinary history to attract new investment in the future.
There is not much talk about LINCS any longer and no money has been targeted to realize what came out of the initial corridor plans except for a piece of East North Avenue that also was a LINC area.
What's left of the Royal (Photo: Philipsen)

The new roof on the Sphinx Club is not yet a harbinger of a new beginning on Pennsylvania Avenue. In the typical Baltimore fashion, there is hope that, eventually, many little steps may add up to a leap. Many steps are in progress:

The City continues to find the right concept for the Avenue Market at the Metro Stop a bit southeast from the Sphinx; the indefatigable Sandtown community activist Elder Harris and his group are trying to find funds to redevelop land next to the already active Jubilee Arts center. The Upton community to the southeast of Druid Heights sees an uptick in development proposals. Mayor Pugh and the MTA kicked off plans dubbed "North Avenue Rising" to be constructed early next year.  Next year is also the year when the replacement of what used to be called the "murder mall" will begin the new development known as Madison North.

Lots of pieces, and no clear resolve to make them all add up to be Baltimore's response to the 2015 unrest that seeped down Pennsylvania Avenue. It is unlikely that these fragments will come together in the same way as they did on Beale Street in Memphis or in Over the Rhine in Cincinnati which were the result of a a coordinated heavy lift. If Pennsylvania and North Avenue, in spite of two revolts that originated here, do not result in a concerted effort to finally do the required heavy lift instead of baby-steps it could well be that not only the Sphinx Club may need yet another round of stabilization in ten years but the entire city.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

My architecture firm, ArchPlan Inc. is the architect of record for the Sphinx Club, the Bakerview townhomes and has a small advisory role on "North Avenue Rising". 

Related on this blog:

Penn and North. Then and Now - The Arch Social Club

New townhomes on Baker Street(Photo: Philipsen)
New roof on the Sphinx Club (Photo: Philipsen)

the Royal Theater in its better days

Easter Parade on Pennsylvania Avenue

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