Proposal for old foundry site raises hope over possibilities

February 08, 2003|By JACQUES KELLY

I HAD JUST fallen off to sleep on a drizzling September night in 1995 when I got a call from the city editor. A terrible fire had erupted at an ancient foundry in Woodberry, just below Television Hill. Could I, who lived in Charles Village, get through and phone in some details? And pronto.

All I could now hear were fire engines wailing. And there was the ominous scent of dense heavy smoke that hangs when Baltimore has a bad fire. I dashed out into St. Paul Street, and with no cabs in sight, waved down a van crammed with parents and children.

I must have seemed crazy, but they mercifully agreed to drive me to the fire, or at least as close as we could get. I regret never getting their name to thank them. I recall walking around the crooked little 19th-century streets of Woodberry, then phoning in the story: Eric Schafer, a 25-year-old fireman, was killed when the foundry's stone wall collapsed on him. A small shrine there recalls his name.

I can also see the light rail line, which passed the fire site, being closed to the public, with the cars being used to haul fresh sets of firefighters and extra hoses to this horrible scene. What burned and burned that night was the ancient Poole & Hunt foundry, a classic set of industrial buildings spread along the northern edges of Druid Hill Park.

Who would have thought this site was once the largest machine works in the state, with its only rival the B&O Railroad's Mount Clare shops in Southwest Baltimore? Who would have known the cast-iron columns and their brackets that support the U.S. Capitol dome were made right here? Like so many Baltimore landmarks set in geographically remote places, you had to have visited the spot to realize its size, dimensions and precise location.

That's another way of saying you could have lived your whole life in Baltimore and never known this amazing address existed -- as private property and not generally open to the public.

I had a little extra knowledge of the place because only a while before the fire I had spent a beautiful spring Sunday there at an artists' open house. Gone were nearly all the big casting apparatus. In their place were dozens of artists, craftspeople and some remnants of light industry. They rented, shared and sublet spaces in what were some of the most delightfully eccentric buildings I had ever experienced.

They were a happy gang who seemed to love working in a pleasant assemblage of slightly ruinous studios. The fire did not take everything on the site. This little campus was spread out and seemed to climb the hill going up toward Greenspring Avenue. Several places survived the flames. In one of the enormous buildings, you could have built, well, maybe a destroyer.

And now comes the word that intrepid, visionary developer Bill Struever plans to work his magic on the Poole & Hunt's Union Works, as the Victorians called it. It's a magic spot, one that promises a new life. I hope the people involved with this key project think big.

The old foundry's neighbor is Druid Hill Park, another city treasure that cannot seem to get itself together. Granted, there has been careful restoration of certain buildings and locales within Druid Hill. But the park's whole northern chunk is closed off -- or you have to know precisely how to penetrate it.

What a waste. Just like the old foundry, there are amazing park structures back in there, or at least there were the last time I prowled around. What a place this could become.

You have to dream. And this is a spot where the imagination could take over.

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