Charles Street could use a little TLC

Baltimore's main thoroughfare is looking down at the heels

August 10, 2010|By Janet Heller

Charles Street may be one of Baltimore's major arteries, but take a stroll up this historic pathway from Fayette Street to Centre Street and one can only conclude that a beautiful and diverse collection of buildings has fallen on hard times. There is no excuse for their shabby, down-at-the-heels appearance.

What do we see? Vacant ground-level storefronts where no attempt has been made to decorate empty spaces. Paint peeling from Brown's Arcade; windows fronting on Charles — like those of the American Heart Association building — that are bare or tastelessly furnished. And even the windows of the lovely Art Deco structure on the Northeast corner of Saratoga Street are covered with what looks like plain wrapping paper.

The noted architect Mies van der Rohe designed 100 North Charles, but take a gander at the desolate entrance bordered by grim stanchions. A charming sculpture of one-time Mayor Tommy D'Alessandro seated on a bench is barely visible at the far end of the plaza. It and the standing figure along the railing should be moved. Why can't the father of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi look at us from a closer vantage point rather than at some distant vista?

Perhaps most disturbing is the absence of trees in this section of Baltimore's main street. There are no trees on the east side of Charles from Saratoga to Centre streets (plant-filled urns are no substitute for the real thing). And the five from Lexington to Saratoga look anorexic.

Then there's the Prayer Garden at Charles and Franklin, which should be a little oasis but is aesthetically disappointing. Locked by night, the garden's prison-like fence is hardly welcoming. One also wonders why the figure of Pope Paul II is set sideways to the street rather than facing it.

Making matters worse, the dismal streetscape suffers from a lack of color. Light poles are painted black and, with the exception of six banners promoting the Downtown Partnership (with Pepsi logos at the bottom), there is barely any decoration. Would it be too costly to hang the state flag or a colorful cloth on a few poles on each block? Shouldn't this be part of the partnership's mission?

True, there are stirrings of new life amid the for-sale, rental and lease signs on these blocks. For example, Gordito's, a Mexican restaurant, is about to open in the 300 block of Charles Street. The owners have painted the frame around the ground floor the brightest lemon yellow imaginable. No one can miss it.

Another dining establishment just opened its doors last weekend in space long occupied by the Peabody Book Store and later by Ixea (a restaurant with a shorter life). C Lounge's owner has said she can't believe she is paying a rental considerably less than the equivalent in Washington, D.C., where her previous property was located. She is totally bullish on Baltimore.

With restaurants in the area serving Thai, Italian, Japanese, Mexican and Nepalese/Indian cuisines, downtown Baltimore cannot be accused of having a provincial palate.

But those few bright spots aside, the face Baltimore presents to the public on Charles Street needs makeup. Perhaps the nearby colleges, with Maryland Institute College of Art taking the lead, could join forces to enhance this corridor. These institutions attract students from across the country and abroad; surely at some point they and their families walk from the Inner Harbor to Mount Vernon Place.

It is to everyone's advantage to present a vista that has some drama and color and is not dominated by for sale, lease or rental signs. One hopes the owners of vacant properties would support such an undertaking.

At the least, a major sprucing up could be a marketing tool for those unaware of the city's many treasures. First impressions are critical. There is a world of creative talent in Baltimore which, if called upon, should be eager to take up the challenge.

Janet Heller is a longtime member of the Board of the Baltimore Architecture Foundation. Her e-mail is

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