To the pluck of the Irish Memorial: A local preservation group makes progress in its plans to honor Irish-Americans with a "shrine" and a cultural center in West Baltimore.

The Urban Landscape

September 17, 1998|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

BALTIMORE IS known as the Monumental City because it's filled with sculptures, statues and memorials that commemorate a wide range of subjects, from the nation's first president to the Holocaust.

But the city has no public memorial to Irish-Americans, many of whom came to the United States during the Irish potato famine of 1845 to 1852 and worked for the B&O Railroad's Mount Clare shops.

That will soon be rectified if a local preservation group has its way.

The nonprofit organization, called the Railroad Historic District Corp., is raising funds to create a "shrine" to Irish-Americans inside historic "alley houses" at 918 and 920 Lemmon St. in West Baltimore, part of a neighborhood where many Irish immigrants settled in the mid-1800s.

The idea is to create a place that tells the story of Irish immigrants in Baltimore. One building would be a "passive museum" where visitors could look through a glass wall to see how an early Irish immigrant family lived. A later phase might include a full-fledged Irish cultural center, where people could hold meetings and get information that would help them trace their genealogy.

Last year was "the 150th anniversary of the worst year of the Great [Potato] Famine, and the local Irish community seems to be frustrated that this is going by without much recognition," said Wayne Nield, a local artist of Irish descent who is working on the project and is acting director of the corporation's museum committee. "Baltimore was one of the significant ports of call for Irish immigrants, but there's nothing to mark that. That's what we want to do with these houses," Nield said.

A shrine to Irish immigrants would help round out the story told by the B&O Railroad Museum nearby, said retired Judge Thomas Ward, a member of the preservation group.

"These Irish immigrants, who came across the big water, bought these houses for $400 apiece and went to work across the street" for the railroad, Ward said. "This pulls it all together."

The proposed shrine and cultural center is a key element in the plan to save dilapidated alley houses at 912, 914 and 916 Lemmon St., along with those at 918 and 920.

Dating from about 1848, the houses were condemned by the city and targeted for demolition until preservationists fought the demolition order in court. After hearings last year, Baltimore Circuit Judge Paul Alpert gave the preservationists time to come up with a plan to fix up the alley houses.

Since then, the group has made its plans final and has raised much of the money needed to restore the buildings to their 1840s appearance. The money raised includes $130,000 in grants and low-interest loans from the Maryland Historic Trust; $2,000 from Preservation Maryland; and $8,000 from the Maryland State Arts Council.

Under the group's plan, 918 Lemmon St. would be converted into a shrine in two stages. Stage one would involve creating a garden, an archaeological site and a mural in the rear of the house. Stage two would involve crafting an interior display to show how Irish families lived. After that, the group would like to convert 920 Lemmon St. into a cultural center.

The other three buildings will be converted into private residences. The group has identified buyers for two of the houses and is seeking a third.

David H. Gleason Associates is the restoration architect. To meet a court deadline, the group must restore the exteriors by mid-December. Nield said he hopes to complete the shrine by June.

The group will be raising funds this weekend during the Irish Festival at the Fifth Regiment Armory, Howard and Preston streets in Baltimore. Donations for the Irish shrine also can be sent to the Railroad Historic District Corp.'s Museum Committee in care of Fiddler's Green, 2916 Gibbons Ave., Baltimore 21214.

Pub Date: 9/17/98

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