Coalition seeks to preserve Hebrew Orphan Asylum

West Baltimore building in need of restoration

(Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara…)
September 09, 2010|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

Hundreds of youngsters once lived in the castle-like West Baltimore institution known as the Hebrew Orphan Asylum that advocates say is the oldest remaining Jewish orphanage building in the country. Now a coalition of preservationists, community leaders and officials of the Jewish Museum of Maryland have launched an attention-raising campaign to preserve the vacant, boarded-up building.

The building, which was acquired by Coppin State University in 2003, lacks a roof and costs about $8,000 a month to keep standing. The college envisions an expensive restoration for the 19th-century building, but has no immediate source for the millions it could cost. The college has not decided what it would use the building for after any renovations.

"It's the American Brewery of West Baltimore," said Johns W. Hopkins Jr., director of Baltimore Heritage, comparing the site to the Victorian landmark on the east side. "There are only a set number of these grand, iconic buildings left unpreserved and this is one of the largest. It is unusual. It is the oldest-surviving Jewish orphanage building in the country."

The building's advocates are asking people to cast an online vote in a competition called This Place Matters, a campaign staged by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington. The orphanage is competing with about 100 other dilapidated structures for a $25,000 award for restoration planning. As of late Thursday afternoon, the building was in eighth place in national voting, which ends Wednesday.

Children often lacking parents and money and recently arrived from Poland, Russia, Lithuania or Prussia lived between the brick battlement towers of the imposing Victorian orphanage. Built in 1875-1876, it was donated by a wealthy Jewish philanthropist and run by the Hebrew Benevolent Society, Baltimore's earliest Jewish charitable organization. It ceased being an orphanage in 1923, then became a hospital and later a community center. It has been closed for a decade.

"You cannot navigate inside," said Gary D. Rodwell, director of the Coppin Heights Community Development Corp., a nonprofit group under the leadership of Coppin State University. "It's costing Coppin $8,000 to $10,000 a month to keep the walls up. It's a priority of the university but it's demanding a lot of our resources."

The monthly costs involve fees for rented metal braces and scaffolds used to reinforce the roofless orphanage.

The orphanage was donated by Bavarian-born William Rayner, a peddler-turned-dry goods merchant who made his fortune in 19th-century Baltimore real estate. A leader in the Har Sinai Congregation, Rayner took an interest in the poor and was the first president of the Hebrew Benevolent Society. The West Baltimore street where the orphanage stands, Rayner Avenue, was named after him.

Rayner initially bought Calverton, an 1815 fancy country estate that served as the Baltimore City and County poorhouse, or "almshouse," from 1820 to 1866. The first Jewish children arrived at Calverton in 1873, but a year later a fire destroyed the old home. On Oct. 22, 1876, the present building opened as an orphanage. It was designed by Edward Lupus, a German immigrant, and Henry A. Roby, a Confederate Army veteran.

Presiding at its dedication were Maryland Gov. John Lee Carroll and Baltimore Mayor Ferdinand C. Latrobe, Rabbi Benjamin Szold and members of Baltimore's German-Jewish community, including the Gutman, Straus, Hutzler, Greenbaum, Burgunder and Friedenwald families.

Deborah R. Weiner, a Jewish Museum research historian who was among those who gathered at the orphanage Wednesday, said that many children were admitted because of what was called an "insufficiency of means."

Henry B. Waskow's mother died when he was a child. He entered the home in 1917 and, in a memoir, recalled being one of 100 children there. He watched movies at the old Bridge Theater and baseball at the old Oriole Park.

"The orphanage was a very important piece of my father's life. It saved him," said Howard Waskow, a former Baltimorean now living in Portland, Ore. "It was a haven for him and his brothers."

The institution's original record books are full of entries like one about 9-year-old Isaac Lepinski, who came to the orphanage with four of his five siblings. His father had deserted the family and his mother lacked the means to keep the children.

Jennie Sykes, born in Russia, arrived as a 4-year-old after both her parents had died within a year of each other. Her admission book listing says "nobody to take care of the child." She lived at the home until she was 15 and was "placed in charge of her brother to continue school in the city."

Another child, Joseph Rubenstein from Lithuania, ran away twice. In 1895, as a 14-year-old, he was given a job at the Hutzler Brothers department store.

In 1923, when the orphanage left West Baltimore and moved to Belvedere Avenue, the building was turned over to West Baltimore General Hospital, which later became Lutheran Hospital. Officials of the Jewish Museum of Maryland said that in response to prevailing attitudes favoring foster care over institutional care, the Jewish Children's Society closed the orphanage shortly after the move and the children were placed with foster families.

An adjoining Ashburton Street building is now the Tuerk House, a facility for those dealing with substance abuse.

To vote in the This Place Matters competition, go here.

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