Soup kitchen becomes a depot for change

Catholic Charities building is a place of transition -- offering hope for life journeys

Critical Eye

May 20, 2007|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

The new brick building on the eastern edge of downtown Baltimore looks curiously like a train station, with its arched windows and overhanging roofline. But trains will never stop there. It's home to the Our Daily Bread Employment Center, and it was designed as the starting point for a different sort of journey.

Scheduled to begin full operation June 4 after a dedication Thursday, the $15 million building at 725 Fallsway represents an unprecedented attempt by Catholic Charities of Baltimore to fight hunger, unemployment and homelessness. In an uncommon melding, it combines a large soup kitchen with employment programs and affordable, short-term housing.

Though it takes its name from the soup kitchen that it replaces at Cathedral and Franklin streets, the 52,000-square-foot employment center is larger and more complex than its predecessor. Occupying a full city block, it has the potential to be a national model showing a new way for nonprofits to provide services to help poor people help themselves.

FOR THE RECORD - A photographer's name was misspelled in a photo caption that ran with an article in Sunday's A&E Today section about the Our Daily Bread Employment Center. His name is Larry Tanner.

The architects' train station imagery is germane to this approach: Just as a railroad terminal can be a starting point for travel, Our Daily Bread is meant to be the point from which poor people can begin their own journeys -- up and out of poverty. It's intended to be a place of transition, not a final destination. And like a train station, it will ultimately be judged by how well it helps people get where they want to go.

Combining services

Catholic Charities has long fought hunger, unemployment and homelessness, but its efforts were essentially stand-alone programs. A visitor could go to Our Daily Bread and get a meal, for example, but still not know how to find a job or decent housing.

At the same time, Our Daily Bread was sometimes drawing as many as 1,000 visitors a day. Some civic leaders worried about having such a visible magnet for the poor so close to hotels and tourist attractions. They wanted to see it move farther from downtown, if not disappear altogether.

That concern was resolved when the city, under former Mayor Martin O'Malley, assembled property along the Fallsway to relocate the meals program. The new site had enough land to build more than a soup kitchen. As it turned out, executive director Hal Smith wanted to combine the dining program with other Catholic Charities initiatives to create a one-stop shop of services for the poor, with an emphasis on job training and placement.

"For us, the key was employment," he said. "Until you can earn a living wage and support yourself and your family, you can't build self-esteem."

But what should such a facility look like? That was the challenge for CSD, the local firm designing the building. No other city had created anything like this, so there was no template.

CSD faced an urban design challenge as well. In recent decades, architects have generally striven to create "contextual" buildings that fit in with their surroundings. But the immediate context on the Fallsway was two prisons, a strip club and an elevated highway. The architects saw no point in emulating them.

"We're in a pretty unique neighborhood," said architect Curtis Wilson. "What we wanted to do is stand out from the surroundings."

That decision not to blend in helped give the employment center its look and organization.

Freight and passenger trains once ran through the area, so railroad imagery wasn't such a stretch. And at the employment center, people will congregate under cover before being routed in different directions.

"There will be 1,000 people a day in this building," Wilson said. "It's not unlike a public building such as a train station."

Paths to choose

The main components are the soup kitchen; the Christopher Place Employment Academy, a residential program for formerly homeless men seeking employment and permanent housing; and the Maryland Re-Entry Partnership, which enables formerly incarcerated men to move back into the community. The center also provides case management and other education, referral and emergency services.

CSD created a building whose exterior evokes a train station without being too literal. With its pitched roofs, rounded windows and decorative masonry walls, it could be a cousin to Mount Royal Station a mile away. All that's missing is a clock tower.

Inside, the building has a clear hierarchy of spaces. The first floor contains the dining room and kitchen, a volunteers' lounge, a reception area and offices for the employment academy and other service providers. The second floor houses classrooms, meeting rooms and a computer lab. The third floor contains housing for Christopher Place participants.

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