The ancient Clipper Industrial Park is a remarkable Baltimore landmark shoehorned between the northeastern flank of Druid Hill Park, Television Hill, the Jones Falls Expressway and the Woodberry light rail station.
Although the industrial park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, I'll bet it's Baltimore's least known landmark.
This campus of 19th century foundry buildings has been quietly converted into a kind of art studio village. It got some attention yesterday when a handful of painters, sculptors, potters and woodworkers staged an open house as part of the citywide Sixth Open Studio Tour.
A trickle of much amused visitors meandered through one of Baltimore's unexpected finds, a fortress-like compound of structures nestled on the fringe of a park.
"I think I'm the only potter in Baltimore with a stream running under my studio," said Norma Wallis, who makes architectural clay pieces.
She lifted a section of flooring to reveal the rushing waters of a nameless brook that bubbles up somewhere near Park Heights Avenue and merges with the Jones Falls about 500 feet from her studio.
The street address is the 3500 block of Clipper Road, but you almost need to have been born in Hampden or Woodberry to find the 20 acres of the old Poole & Hunt foundry tucked into the sides and folds of the Jones Falls Valley.
Robert Poole -- the local public school is named for him -- born in Maghera, Ireland, in 1818, came to Baltimore as a young man and worked at local machine shops before forming a partnership with German H. Hunt.
They were very successful and set up the first of several solidly built stone shop buildings in the Baltimore County village of Woodberry in 1853 not far from the textile mills that wove cotton duck sail cloth. The Northern Central Railroad, on whose tracks the Central Light Rail Line runs, did the plant's heavy hauling.
Poole & Hunt won some great contracts and patented some money-making devices. Baltimore County historian John W. McGrain writes that the furnaces melted the pig iron to cast 36 iron columns and brackets for the U.S. Capitol dome in the 1860s.
Some 400 workers once turned out steam engines, textile machinery, screw-pile lighthouses, hydraulic cylinders, grist mill water-power turbines and base rings for battleship turret guns. The buildings were eventually acquired by the Franklin Balmar Co., which 50 years ago was a subcontractor on the Manhattan Project's atomic bomb.
By 1972, the old foundry was sold to a maker of kitchen cabinets and much of the space was subdivided for small firms and artists.
The painters and sculptors seem to love the unusual spaces and low rents.
"I guess I've imploded," said artist Les Harris, who took over the first floor of the old P&H office-headquarters in 1977. Year by year, his installation has grown like an out-of-control Christmas garden. It is now an amazing series of chambers that one observer thought was a room-by-room tour of Western civilization, from Egypt to Andy Warhol. His artwork fills every square inch of space.
"We really can't move it. We are selling photographs of the Egyptian parts," said his wife, Sally.
In the basement of one of the former machine shops, furniture maker Scott Wallace is turning out desks and cabinets that will end up in the city's fanciest offices and condominiums.
Down the hall, Carolyn Maynard has just opened her new painting studio. There's a skylight cut out of the massive slate roof and large windows that open to a very green slope. The walls are filled with her finely rendered landscapes of the North Carolina hills, the Eastern Shore and Southeast Baltimore's Canton.
The biggest surprise comes from an enterprise that has nothing to do with art. The Clipper City Rock Gym is Baltimore's only indoor rock climbing space.
It opened in 1992 in the cavernous Poole machinery erecting shed.
Built in 1890, the massive shed was designed to hold the foundry's largest devices. Today you might mistake it for a Hollywood sound stage or a substantial church without statues or stained glass. The Rock Gym modified its walls for indoor rock climbing.
A dozen climbers spent yesterday afternoon scaling the wall (60 feet, straight up) like human flies.
What does one wear for indoor rock climbing? Little more than black Spandex and safety cables.