Apartment house recovers old style after long neglect Bellevieu-Manchester rejuvenated by church as housing for elderly

September 26, 1995|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

An 89-year-old apartment house that many observers gave up as a lost cause has regained the dignity and sunshine of its youth.

The big windows at the Bellevieu-Manchester, long a stylish address for black schoolteachers and business professionals at Bloom Street and Madison Avenue, are just about ready for new curtains. A neighboring church rescued the flats after a lengthy period of decay.

There will be letters filling the new mail boxes again in the Bellevieu-Manchester's new life as apartments for senior citizens. Even a relic of early apartment life has been preserved -- the original bird-cage lift, patented "A-B-See Electric Elevator."

The Rev. Curtis A. Jones, pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, said this summer's completion of the apartment project has accomplished the mission of uplifting the spirit of the community.

"We wanted to unite the two formerly separate buildings and restore their former dignity," he said, adding that his 300-member congregation backed him on the apartment's "first-class" renovation.

The Bellevieu-Manchester is two buildings, which residents used call the Bellevieu side and Manchester side. Always held in common ownership, the buildings were joined by a corridor in the renovation. For 12 years, the site had been vacant until the church rescued it.

"Our pastor taught us we needed to be more of a mission church, that we needed to get beyond being a family church," said William H. Britt, a church elder and retired city school administrator.

The renovation began in November and soon sparked keen interest about the flats' history.

"Some of the people who had the best jobs that professional African-Americans held lived there," recalled Mr. Britt, who grew up in this neighborhood and who now lives in Windsor Hills.

"When I was a child, I used to visit in these apartments," he said. "This was the place where the members of our community lived who didn't want to own a house. It had our young schoolteachers and postal workers. It was quite the building."

The $5.4 million project is the work of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, an institution that began in 1842 and was founded at another location by free blacks as well as slaves. The church sits on the west side of Madison, the newly painted apartment on the east.

Workers are putting the finishing touches on the 48 units, nearly all of which rent for about $328-$350 a month. Eight apartments are being reserved for federally subsidized rental. The Presbytery of Baltimore, the Enterprise Special Investment Foundation, city and state governments and local banks assisted the project.

The Bellevieu-Manchester could be a textbook case of Baltimore's changes in demographic and ethnic history. The two, near mirror-image buildings were constructed in 1906 side by side on Bloom Street in the Madison Park neighborhood.

The apartment house stood in what became the heart of the city's prosperous Jewish residential neighborhood. Just down the street were the dome and minarets of the landmark Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, a mighty granite structure that today houses the Berea Temple of the Seventh Day Adventists.

When strict racial segregation was the rule for housing here, Jewish and Christian families lived in the Bellevieu-Manchester, but blacks were not permitted to rent apartments. There was a branch of Polovoy & Hiken dry cleaners and tailors in the basement; a streetcar served busy Madison Avenue.

The 1930 city directory notes many vacancies in the building. A few years later, church members recall that the apartments were fully occupied by blacks, often young professionals beginning their careers as schoolteachers or government workers. About the only other change to the building was a barbershop and beauty parlor on the ground floor.

"I lived there from 1952 to 1968 when the building was rented to single men and women and couples without children. It was quiet. Come July 4, we would carry chairs to the roof and watch fireworks," said Doris Levi, a member of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church who lives on White Chapel Road in Ashburton. She is a retired school administrator.

She liked the Bellevieu-Manchester's location because it stood across the street from her church where she prepared altar cloths. Each Sunday her family arrived at her apartment for a large dinner.

"I shopped downtown at Lexington Market, then took the bus home. The elevator operator would help me get the groceries upstairs. We also had Nate's and Leon's restaurant on North Avenue. It was a very convenient location," she said.

The renovation also has provoked conversation within the neighborhood.

"Neighborhood people come in and tell us stories about the place," said John Sullivan, construction chief for Harkins Builders. "A man brought a photo of himself taken on the front steps. During the renovation we've found bits of old newspapers, Indian-head pennies and gas lights. We couldn't believe the old elevator. It must have been very special to put one in a five-story apartment 100 years ago.

"This is one beautiful building."

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