Project is booked for police station

Renovation: Plans call for the historic Northern District police station in Hampden to be transformed into a public marketplace.

August 09, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Not so long ago, 3355 Keswick Road was the place where miscreants were locked up in the "dungeons" -- an array of closet-sized basement cells with small squares cut in the doors for breathing.

As much a part of the community as the patrol officers who walked their beats, the Northern District police station has loomed over Hampden for a little more than a century as a study in Victorian turrets and green copper. Local lore even has it -- albeit incorrectly -- that Edgar Allan Poe once slept off a drunken stupor behind bars there.

Poe had been dead for 50 years by the time ground was broken for the landmark building, which is about to shed its 20th-century image of dankness and darkness. It's being recast for a new role. Those drawn to the community cornerstone will soon come to shop, dine and mingle at holiday festivals in the winter and open-air movies in summer.

That was the idea discussed recently in the building's old roll call room. It's here that developers are crafting their ideas to turn the monolithic structure into an inviting public marketplace.

"It's a Cinderella story," said Stanley Keyser, a lead partner in the redevelopment proposal chosen by city officials. "We'll have to dress up the beauty and send her to the ball."

The brick-and-mortar edifice -- with stained-glass windows, period fireplaces and mantelpiece moldings -- was sold by the city for $225,000 this month to Keyser and a partner, Wendy L. Blair. City officials also lent the pair $250,000 to clean up the building's many layers of lead and asbestos, which have accumulated over the years.

Lead deposits are particularly plentiful in one part of the old police compound -- the shooting range, where bullets remain embedded in the floor.

Taking possession of the Gothic landmark, equipped with horse stables, was a long time coming for Keyser, 56, and Blair, 42. Although they were ready to start renovation work when Northern District police officers moved to a new facility on West Cold Spring Lane a year ago, they had to wait until the city's juvenile jail was relocated from the building in March.

So the two were more than ready to call it their own during a tour Monday. They said renovations would begin after Labor Day. The duo hopes to finish the $3.6 million project in about a year.

The police building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which means the team will receive federal tax credits, Keyser said.

"When we're finished with our metamorphosis, the historic artifacts and craftsmanship have to remain for future generations," Keyser said. "That's why we're so particular. This might be Pennsylvania chestnut wood, for example, under the lead paint. Wouldn't that be wonderful to see?"

In its new function, the building will be named the Hampden Village Centre -- which, Blair said, speaks to the developers' concept of a community gathering place. The 25,000 square feet of space in the main building will be allotted to offices, she said, although no main commercial tenant has been signed.

Standing in an outdoor area defined by brick walls along Beech Avenue, Keyser said, "This is very charming, very Old World. I see this as an open urban courtyard so the community can use this as a neighborhood facility. A [police] wagon as a piece of sculpture might be neat for the center of the courtyard."

Keyser hopes that a casual restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating will blend into the nearby sidewalk-shop atmosphere on West 36th Street, an eclectic mix of shops known as "The Avenue." An occasional flea market might work into the mix, he added.

He also is optimistic about the community's annual "Miracle on 34th Street" Christmas lighting extravaganza in the block of rowhouses across the way.

"Christmas comes early here," Keyser said. "We could invite the community in to have hot chocolate."

He said he also hoped to continue a "haunted house" for children that Northern District police officers created. Tom Kiefaber, the owner of the Senator Theatre, and Keyser said they have also discussed bringing an "open-air cinema concept" to the Hampden hub next summer.

Kathleen Talty, a neighborhood leader from Wyman Park, said there was solid support for Keyser and Blair, who offered the only proposal that did not involve residential units.

"There was a concern about apartments," said Talty, a lawyer who was chairwoman of the neighborhood task force on the Northern District building. "Also, Stan Keyser stated to us he wanted community involvement in all phases. We didn't want this to be a white elephant."

M.J. "Jay" Brodie, the city official who oversaw the project, said he was pleased that historic tax credits remain a legal and viable way for commercial developers to revive old buildings. Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., said the process was long and difficult.

"There were long struggles in timing, in moving the police to their spiffy new headquarters and moving the juveniles," he said.

A dedication plaque in the roll call room gives the year the public building was built, 1899, and lists the architect, builder and police commissioners. "The movers had three bolts out," Keyser said. "I insisted this be left."

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