Old police station comes alive as school for adults

November 15, 2003|By JACQUES KELLY

THIS FALL continues to lead me around the city to some marvelous buildings where, in the course of the tour, I migrate to the windows and get a new perspective on our old, ever-rebuilding city.

On a windy afternoon this week, I found myself under the roof of the old Southern District Police Station, Ostend and Patapsco streets. I was gazing out at some first-class 1896 rounded casements and taking in the steeples of the Holy Cross and St. Mary's Star of the Sea churches, along with a lot of South Baltimore roof asphalt. It was a clear day. On the Catonsville horizon, I could see the Mount DeSales Academy.

I was in the old lockup because it will be dedicated next week as the South Baltimore Learning Center, a place for adults to enroll in classes to learn to read and write and get their high school equivalency diplomas.

The transformation from police station to learning center took a long time. After the police moved out in 1986 to other quarters near Cherry Hill (never enough parking in South Baltimore, even decades before the urban renovators started moving in) this classic neighborhood station house became a home to several non-profit organizations. The learning center emerged as the one that raised the $2.3 million for a well deserved, first-rate makeover.

It's a sad statistic that Baltimore has 145,000 adults with no high school diploma. Many residents have reading skills below the fourth-grade level.

So, on many nights, people who want to work on their literacy skills enter the south front doors on this happy schoolhouse, which by the way, once housed a police boxing ring and pistol range (the bullet holes are still there), offices, locker rooms and court.

Except for the single steel lockup that's been preserved for the sake of historic interest, you would not know this was once a hall of neighborhood justice. On the inside, the new, old Southern looks like a school, with high ceilings (covered in pressed tin in places), white glass hanging lamps and corridors with wood floors.

On the outside, it looks like a brick first cousin to the Maryland Penitentiary, which, it is, because both were designed by architect Jackson Gott.

The Learning Center's Sonya Socha, who directed the massive restoration task, told me the place has good karma, that her learners like their generous-sized classrooms (most fitted with oversized wall maps of the world) and the fact the center sits in a safe, bus-accessible neighborhood.

As my day at old Southern was ending, I couldn't help thinking about a quote by Evening Sun writer Spencer Davidson, who wrote this tribute in 1955: "The best compliment to the Southern station house is to describe it as a building where 400 youngsters come and go unafraid. About 400 of them are enrolled in a boy's club operating on the second floor. In the course of a summer day it seems 4,000 must use the water cooler near the side entrance."

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