Find a new purpose worthy of a pier without peer

City Diary

January 29, 2003|By James D. Dilts

WITH REAL-life crime dramas in Baltimore replayed on TV shows such as Homicide: Life on the Street and the increasing confusion of actual events with those on the screen, why wouldn't some people believe that the Fells Point Recreation Pier was a police station?

The leader of a tour of Fells Point film sites, in fact, identified it as such five years ago.

The pier's real story is a bit more interesting, and in turning the pier over to a private developer, the city should be careful that it doesn't send history to join Homicide in the rerun bins.

The Recreation and Commercial Pier was built in 1914 with a lower deck for commercial purposes and an upper one for recreation, and before Homicide took it over for a seven-year, rent-free run in 1992, that's mostly how it functioned.

It was one of America's early reinforced concrete piers, built after the 1904 Baltimore fire as part of the harbor improvement program.

Before that, the city owned almost none of its waterfront, which was "entirely owned and controlled by the railroads, private corporations and individuals," according to a contemporary engineer's report.

Tugboats and other maritime operations used the pier and the community used the building. Designed by Baltimore architect Theodore Wells Pietsch, it was an imposing steel-frame structure, brick with granite and limestone trim, and had a broad arch and grand colonnade facing Thames Street.

Inside was a 40-foot-by- 84-foot "assembly hall" (ballroom), and out back "an open promenade deck with awnings and shelters somewhat in the manner of the great steel piers at Atlantic City," according to the engineer's report.

In 1930, the citizens of Fells Point, which was founded independently of Baltimore, celebrated their bicentennial with a weeklong program that included a Mardi Gras celebration, a marathon and a grand costume ball on the recreation pier.

Dances continued to be popular events; 40 years later, the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point held the first Fells Point Harbor Ball on the pier to raise money to fight expressways.

Immigrants learned English in classes at the pier, which had a library and a playground on the deck.

In the 1980s, about 475 people a week used the pier's recreation center, but maintenance was down and the lone director was having difficulty keeping it open. The city looked to profit-making ventures; the community shouted down a proposed University of Maryland Performing Arts Center. A later idea for a fish market died.

In 1985, an NBC crew used the recreation pier, which was closed for repairs, to film a documentary about the Statue of Liberty. Then a group of residents worked to maintain the maritime and recreation uses of the pier.

The effort, however, degenerated into a dispute about parking and a suggestion that the facility be turned over to a private developer for commercial redevelopment. This is where the issue stands today.

The city plans to sell or lease the pier to a developer. The community still wants the ballroom and promenade deck and its spectacular harbor view to be open to the public. Repair costs range from $200,000 to several million dollars.

"To me, it's like selling your grandmother, City Hall or the library," said Bob Keith, a member of the Recreation Pier Committee. "We've tried to come up with ideas."

Someone had a good one back in the 1970s when they mounted a production of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie on the pier with the tugboats, seagulls and open water as a natural backdrop. Nothing Andrew Lloyd Webber or Julie Taymor ever dreamed up for Broadway equaled that, but we could sure use a little of their imagination.

Today's writer

James D. Dilts is a Baltimore writer who focuses on railroads and architecture. He is the author of The Great Road: The Building of the Baltimore & Ohio, the Nation's First Railroad, 1828-1853 (Stanford University Press, 1993) and Buildings of the United States -- Maryland, to be published by Oxford University Press.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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