Save the station

December 29, 2007

The glass and steel of the Harbor East skyline dwarf the rundown brick station. Its size, relative to the gleaming office towers and pricey condominiums, by no means reflects its stature or significance, which lie in its history. And that history should be at the center of any effort to rescue the President Street station from indifference and decay.

It looks so out of place on its oddly shaped plot of land, sandwiched on the eastern side of the harbor between the restaurants of Little Italy, the Public Works Museum, a trendy Irish pub and the Marriott Waterfront Hotel. It's hard to recognize it as the 1850s train station where 700 members of the 6th Massachusetts Regiment arrived on April 19, 1861, after Fort Sumter was attacked by the Confederates. As the soldiers made their way down Pratt Street, an angry mob confronted them and a riot ensued. The first casualties of the war fell there.

The Civil War museum housed in the station is closed. The Maryland Historical Society, which had control over it for a time, turned the keys over to City Hall a month ago. There it stands, forlorn but not forgotten.

The B&O Railroad Museum was interested in taking over the station, which made sense from a historical perspective. It was a train station, after all. It's where, in 1838, Frederick Douglass, disguised as a sailor and carrying phony papers, boarded a train to escape to freedom. The B&O museum does a robust business in Southwest Baltimore, drawing 200,000 visitors a year. It surely would know how to market the President Street station, but the building is in need of repair, which the B&O can't afford without a city subsidy.

Courtney Wilson, director of the B&O museum, said the museum's artifacts also need some attention and the minimal traffic through the Civil War museum would barely cover the station's utility costs.

So now the city has asked the Baltimore Development Corp. to request proposals from the development community in the hopes of finding a patron. Surely the station could use more attention and more traffic, but any attempt to undermine the history of the property for commercial reasons would be wrong. A plan that would simply retain the outer shell of the station would do an injustice to its significance. History should be preserved and promoted there, not relegated to a few artfully displayed interpretative plaques.

We may be getting ahead of ourselves here, but history buffs, preservationists and enthusiasts of Maryland's Civil War past should be outspoken on the future and fate of the President Street station. The decision makers shouldn't be the last to know where you stand.

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