A long-lost jewel of Union Square may glow again as beacon of hope

May 07, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

Russell Baker remembers the library of his Baltimore childhood as "a wonderful, mysterious place with cathedral beams in the ceiling -- I tried to read my way through the whole place one summer."

It was the late 1930s, and the future writer's dreamland stood at the corner of Hollins and Calhoun streets. Old branch No. 2 of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, just down the block from H. L. Mencken's house, was one of the four original libraries bequeathed by Mr. Pratt to the city in 1886.

"I remember those great ceilings and the sense of richness on the shelves," said Mr. Baker, a New York Times columnist and former Sun reporter whose book "Growing Up" won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983. "The library did a wonderful job of putting their own hard bindings on books, lovely colors: dark blues and greens and deep reds. The shelves were a medieval tapestry of color."

In his own youth, apprentice curmudgeon Henry Mencken was likewise enchanted by the world within the library's Romanesque arches, high-peaked slate roof, terra cotta panels and floral chimney decorations.

In a chapter of his memoirs titled "Larval Stage of a Bookworm," Mr. Mencken wrote: "I had a card before I was nine and began an almost daily harrying of the virgins at the delivery desk."

Yet, if you visited 1401 Hollins St. today you would find a sad, boarded-up building weary from its 108 years; a dark haunt strewn with surplus furniture and junk: odd hand tools, old air conditioners, a roll of chicken wire, kitchen sinks, television sets and rusty frying pans. Replaced in 1964 by a bigger branch library at the corner of Hollins and Payson streets, old No. 2 housed Urban Services workers for about 20 years before languishing as a Pratt storage shed.

Now, 30 years after its shelves were emptied of books, the structure described by preservationists as "the most important building in the Union Square neighborhood," could return to its original purpose with the help of a $125,000 state grant.

Along with the Union Square Improvement Association and the nonprofit Neighborhood Design Center, the Pratt hopes to resurrect the building as a library with a single purpose: community redevelopment.

And though at least another $175,000 is needed, the principals expect renovations to begin with roof repairs in the fall.

"Libraries have never done anything like this before; they've never seen neighborhood groups as their client base," said James C. Welbourne, assistant director of the Pratt. "Union Square is trying to take back its neighborhood and they're asking institutions like the library not to leave."

By itself, the Pratt is unwilling and incapable of spending the estimated $300,000 necessary to repair a building that is no longer a part of its neighborhood branch system.

Still, the Pratt has been reluctant to abandon the fabled edifice and has kept up with minimal maintenance, spending $13,000 in the last year for a boiler and furnace repairs. So, when Union Square leaders and members of Neighborhood Design Center pitched a plan to bring No. 2 back to life with volunteer labor and outside funding, the Pratt listened.

Under the plan, the Pratt would retain ownership of the building and fill it with urban development literature, including classics on fund raising, and an electronic database of community programs from across the country.

The Neighbor Line database eventually will be accessible from other Pratt branches and city agencies.

"Around that core collection we'll add titles that particularly relate to Baltimore as well as documents from the city planning department," Mr. Welbourne said. "And there will probably be some aspect of Mencken as well."

The Neighborhood Design Center, which aids communities statewide and helped plan the redevelopment of the old Green Spring Dairy property on 41st Street, will staff the space, use it for offices and play host to redevelopment workshops.

Louise Hintze, who works out of the building as a free-lance social worker, will stay put to continue her work. And Union Square will get needed public meeting space for children and adults, while erasing some of the blight in its midst.

The design center, said executive director Ellen Casale, will bring in neighborhood groups to brainstorm with builders and architects on problems ranging from making use of old industrial sites to shoring up bad alleys.

"This building is a peach -- it's a little shabby, but structurally sound," said Phil Hildebrandt of the Union Square Improvement Association.

Said Ferrier Stillman, president-elect of the design center's board: "One of the reasons we chose this as our new home, instead of, say, revitalizing a bus station, is because libraries connote the importance of education -- a library is something everyone can be part of."

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