I always fall for streets that arrive with history attached. Balmar's is cast in iron.
Not so far from the new metal lettering proclaiming Clipper Mill is this newly created thoroughfare called Balmar. Therein lies a tale of what's being built on the western flank of the Jones Falls Valley.
Located in Woodberry, Clipper Mill is the name attached to a 17-acre sprawling industrial campus that sits in a little recess between Druid Hill Park and Television Hill. This is a chunk of prime new-old Baltimore, for many years off-limits because of the dangers posed by heavy industry located here.
The old Balmar foundry closed years ago. The site became artists' studios, but much of it burned in a spectacular September 1995 fire. A lot of hard work has transformed this site over the winter. The Millrace Building, housing condominiums, is complete and is welcoming visitors today for tours. It's worth a good look.
I'm not an impartial source on whether Clipper Mill is a success. I am a huge fan of renovated industrial buildings, and this group could be in a small Pennsylvania or New England town -- except that it's within the city limits, not far from the old Schenuit Rubber smokestack and the Mary Sue candy sign off Interstate 83. The place is a project of Baltimore's Struever Brothers, Eccles & Rouse.
The other evening, I was touring the stylish new Williams Jackson Ewing offices in the former Poole & Hunt foundry office building. Messrs. Poole and Hunt were the 19th-century moguls who had a smoke-belching foundry here. They are known for the columns and supports they made for the U.S. Capitol.
Some of their cast-iron columns have been incorporated into the setting of a stunning new swimming pool that looks like something out of William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon but is rendered in Maryland's Falls Road rustic stone. It's clearly visible off Clipper Park Road, the main street within the 17 acres of polished-up, Rust Belt super-chic.
Back to Balmar Way. By the 1930s, the old Poole & Hunt site had changed hands and was known as the Balmar Corp. Local author Harold R. Manakee in his Maryland in World War II notes that the place made gears, valve boxes and steam grate shakers for railroad locomotives and bomber parts for the French and British governments.
After Pearl Harbor, the 900 workers (including 79 women) turned out parts for the Glenn L. Martin Marauder, Mariner and Mars aircraft. The workers also forged Liberty ship anchors and chain shackles. Then, toward the end of the war, they made parts for the Manhattan Project -- some of the technology used in the atomic bomb.
Within this industrial village is its cathedral, the erecting shop, where workers 100 years ago made industrial gears and tremendous wheels used for mining and other industries. The 1995 fire didn't destroy everything here; the overhead crane is now painted safety yellow. The place is being converted into condominiums. Across the street are the artists' studios (worth peeping in the windows) and some new homes.
I just like walking around this hunk of old Baltimore. It's a village made of Erector-set-like parts, huge stone chunks, wooden plank doors, brick venting chimneys -- and a lot of fresh imagination.