On a quiet stretch of Clarks Lane in Northwest Baltimore, an unusual new building fosters a tradition that dates to biblical times.
There are no signs to indicate what happens inside. It could be a bank, a school, apartments. Only after sundown does it come alive, and even then a passer-by would have little clue to the activities within.
This modern-looking structure is the Mikvah of Baltimore, a bathing facility that is used for spiritual cleansing, primarily by married Jewish women from Baltimore's Orthodox community.
Constructed last fall to replace an older and smaller mikvah on Rogers Avenue, the $1.5 million facility is a sign of the vitality of Baltimore's Orthodox Jewish community, which has grown dramatically in recent years. Each month, 500 women use it. Yet the inner workings are somewhat mysterious, even to many Jews.
"Ninety-nine people out of 100 wouldn't know the intricacies that went into the construction of this building," said David Hess, the president of Mikvah of Baltimore. "But if they're interested, they'll know what it's about."
According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, the term mikvah, or mikveh, means "a pool or bath of clear water, immersion in which renders ritually clean a person who has become ritually unclean."
Bathers immerse themselves after they become spiritually unclean "through contact with the dead or any other defiling object, or through an unclean flux from the body," the encyclopedia says.
Modern-day mikvahs are used chiefly by married women after menstruation.
Women also may go there for immersion just before marriage or on the eve of a religious holiday.
Baltimore has one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities in the country, with more than 2,500 families attending more than 30 different synagogues.
In a study several years ago, 20 percent of the area's 93,000 Jewish residents were identified as Orthodox -- the highest percentage of any U.S. city, according to the Council of Jewish Federations.
The building at 3207 Clarks Lane is open seven days a week, starting at sundown.
The key to the spiritual cleansing is the use of "kosher water" that has a certain percentage of rainwater or melted snow that has never gone through metal pipes or been kept in a vessel or receptacle. City water may be mixed in as long as there is a minimum quantity of kosher water -- about 250 liters.
Accommodating that and many other rules posed a challenge for the architect, Ed Hord of Anshen + Allen, and the contractor, M. J. Construction Co.
They worked closely with Baltimore Rabbi Moshe Heineman. "It was a collaborative effort," Mr. Hord said. "There was a lot of discussion."
The exterior was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright's Winslow House, he added. "We tried to do something that fits the neighborhood but also says it's an institution.
The lobby features tilework designed by Avrum Cohen to evoke nature and flowing water. From there, women are led to one of 20 private changing areas, where they bathe before the immersion.
"There can be nothing between them and the water -- no fingernail polish, no makeup," Mr. Hess explained.
After signaling an attendant, the women are taken to one of two bathing areas. Filled with water heated to a comfortable temperature, each tub is 4 feet deep, 6 six feet long and 6 feet wide. During the ritual bath, women say a short blessing and immerse themselves completely in the water. Then they return to the dressing area and prepare to leave.
The changing rooms are private, so the women don't see each other. That's the intention, Mr. Hess explained. "It's a personal experience."
Reared as a Methodist in Abilene, Texas, Mr. Hord converted to Judaism when he married. But his family is not Orthodox, he said, so he had to study all about mikvahs.
"It was a real puzzle -- maximizing efficiency, minimizing the walking distance, making sure the water came together the right way," he said.
"The response we've gotten," Mr. Hess said, "is that it has enhanced the religious significance of the experience by creating a more serene and relaxing atmosphere."
Notre Dame gym debuts next month
The Institute of Notre Dame, an all-girls' high school at 901 Aisquith St., will dedicate its new Marion I. Knott Gymnasium Feb. 7 at 1:30 p.m. It is a symbol of the Catholic school's resurgence.