Though renovated, Pine Street Station retains thhat jailhouse feel

Jacques Kelly

April 29, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

Miscreants take note. Pine Street is on the watch once again.

Baltimore's legendary jailhouse, whose backside faces Martin Luther King Boulevard at Lexington Street, is fully employed.

Today, with rooftop flags flying and computer terminals beeping, the old station house has turned a new leaf. Freshly restored, it's the security headquarters of the University of Maryland's downtown campus.

The squarish masonry pile at 214 N. Pine St. looks as if Sherlock Holmes designed this go-for-broke Victorian hoosegow. Baltimore's Western District finest moved into their new station house in April 1878. Its roof is spiked, spired and slated. The brick building was the work of architect Frank E. Davis. With its oak sergeant's desk, brass rail, magistrate's courtroom and lockup wing, the place was a turnkey's ideal. Thanks to a sympathetic refurbishing, the old place retains much of its Jack the Ripper feel.

During its lengthy career, the Pine Street pokey became synonymous with seamy crime. Situated in the ventricle of an old vice and prostitution district west of Lexington Market, the station had a festering reputation in local police annals: Alfred Liebman, saloonkeeper, was accused (1901) of "permitting Minnie Klein under 16 years of age to remain in his saloon at 864 and 866 Raborg street where spiritous or malt liquors are sold." Charges were brought against a drinker when he struck a companion "with a conch shell."

But in the era of the police radio car, the hemmed-in Pine Street building was an anachronism. Western District police officers moved out in 1951, though the old station house was given a reprieve.

A year later it reopened as the police Bureau of Aid and Prevention. Its name was officially changed to Pine Street Station, which nearly everyone had called it anyway.

Local cases involving women and children came through the station's doors -- non-support cases, abandoned babies, lost 5-year-olds and homeless women. The city's Missing Persons Bureau was housed in a cubicle on the second floor, a big room with battered furniture and the air of a grade-B Monogram Studios picture.

"For its time, it wasn't a bad place. It was kept clean and washed, sprayed with pine disinfectant," said Charlotte Main Monaghan, a Baltimore lawyer who was the first magistrate assigned to Pine Street after its change of status to dealing with women and children.

In that era, baby cribs, changing tables and houseplants invaded the detention room.

Miriam Fine, who worked there in the 1950s, recalls the pleasant days when most of her work was preparing non-support court documents.

"At lunchtime we walked down to the cafeteria at the old Hecht Brothers store at Baltimore and Pine streets," she recalled. The place had its personalities. Capt. William Hartung and Capt. William Armstrong labored here with neighborhood youth. Police boys' clubs operated out of Pine Street. Sara Cohen, a civilian employee, dispensed help to women in difficult circumstances.

Reporter Rea Murdock described the station's constituency in a 1954 series in The Evening Sun: "They are the Baltimore-born children of the immigrants from surrounding states who were attracted to the Patapsco's humming war industries. They and their parents have been left stranded in the backwater of NNTC receding boom and rising unemployment."

Human failing turned up, too. The 1952 sergeant's blotter included disorderly conduct, assault by striking and stabbing, arson, bigamy, burglary, bogus check passing, fortune telling, forgery, prostitution and murder.

This was the era when WCBM radio reporter Eddie Fenton barked over airwaves, "The woman was taken to Pine Street." By this time, the phase Pine Street was synonymous with incarceration.

In the 1960s, the aging building was being called a "snake pit," "medieval" and being compared to Bedlam, an infamous London insane asylum. The city police moved out for good in 1971, but not before legions of newspaper reporters did their tour of the place. It's said the station figures in more than one detective novel set in Baltimore.

Pine Street then got a 20-year sentence to a lifeless purgatory. Despite a short-lived plan by a local clergyman to do drug rehabilitation work there, the station house sat vacant.

Finally, the city agreed to a real estate swap. The University of Maryland, which had been deeded the H.L. Mencken House on Union Square, wanted the former lockup. The city, through its City Life Museums, took the Mencken residence from the school.

The university began putting money into Pine Street with what funds were available. It fixed the walls and roof, then, with a final jolt of $1.4 million, finished off the place.

"Giving us this building has been a tremendous morale booster," said John J. Collins, the university's chief of public safety, who feels the building is among the finest hospital-university security setups in the country.

Pine Street still has the look and feel of a police station. Indeed it is, with a bank of lockups for people arrested by the State Police assigned to the 40-block area containing the myriad of university buildings.

But some things have never changed. For all the state-of-the-art computers, video screens and instant, on-line hookups, the main desk still has its ruled daily journal book, where all important events are recorded -- in old fashioned longhand and ink.

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