Recycling Sphinx Club site

African-American landmark might be reborn as museum

July 24, 2008|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Sun reporter

The storied Sphinx Club on Pennsylvania Avenue could be reborn as a museum, arts center, shops, housing or another community use, say Baltimore economic development officials, who are seeking redevelopment proposals for the now-vacant site in West Baltimore.

The Baltimore Development Corp., which earlier this year acquired the former club in the 2100 block of Pennsylvania Ave., said it hopes to attract proposals that incorporate the cultural significance of the former club located a few blocks north of city produce market The Avenue Market.

The move by the city dovetails with city and community-led efforts to revitalize the avenue and preserve its cultural roots.

"We've gotten some interest in the site because of where it sits and its history, and that was the impetus for us to push forward," said Will Beckford, managing director of commercial revitalization for BDC.

Pennsylvania Avenue had served as the cultural hub of African-American entertainment in the city from the 1920s until the 1960s, when much of the area was destroyed in the 1968 riots.

The private Sphinx Club, opened in 1946, was known for after-show parties with jazz musicians and local celebrities. It found a niche among the jazz clubs, theaters and nightclubs - most notably the Royal Theater - where entertainers such as Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday performed.

"This club was one of our most outstanding and prestigious clubs during Pennsylvania Avenue's heyday," said George Gilliam, former executive director of Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Collaborative. "New York had its Cotton Club. Baltimore had its Sphinx."

Beckford said city officials have met with residents of Druid Heights and surrounding neighborhoods to gauge their preferences for transforming the 12,000-square-foot site, which consists of four vacant buildings and two vacant lots.

He said ideas have included a senior center, a multi-use lounge, museum, children's arts center, offices, shops, housing, a restaurant or a mix of uses.

"They just want something there that's positive in that community that kids can go to or seniors can go, that reflects Pennsylvania Avenue and its history and its movement forward," he said.

Community members want any new development to reflect African-American culture and attract visitors who want to learn about or remember Pennsylvania Avenue's heyday, Gilliam said.

"Pennsylvania Avenue is where we lived, worked and played during that time," he said.

"In segregation, this is the only place we could go. But it was so fantastic that not only African-Americans came but all diverse groups came. We were the first truly integrated part of Baltimore."

Other recent initiatives on Pennsylvania Avenue include a $1 million, BDC-led facade improvement program for retailers in the 1500 to 1800 blocks to replace signage and lighting and clean up buildings, and a $1.5 million streetscape project that will include improved lighting and paving and new benches that's to start in the next couple of weeks

The city is also creating Legends Park on Pennsylvania Avenue, which will have an amphitheater.

Proposals for the former Sphinx Club are due to BDC by Sept. 22.

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