There's a transformation taking place this fall that is obvious from the former National Brewery in Brewers Hill. On a terrace just below the iconic Mr. Boh sign, I observed a construction army at work along Conkling and Dean streets. Over the summer, they labored on the creation of more than 600 new apartment rental units in low-rise buildings. Week by week, floors rose. Balconies appeared. Parking decks arrived. And sweeps disappeared down an ancient brick powerhouse chimney.
For years, this eastern end of Canton was a hard-toiling industrial neighborhood, served by ships and rail sidings, surrounded by rowhouses and dotted with church steeples. It was long associated with the old National, Gunther and Hamm brewing companies, and in later years, the Tulkoff horseradish operation, after big brewing moved elsewhere and eventually left Maryland.
This fall, the residential side of the neighborhood has been asserting itself. Developers are building anew, from the ground up, and renovating historic structures. It's like a whole new residential neighborhood is arriving at the Land of Pleasant Living (the National Bohemian slogan) and the Land of Sky-Blue Waters (Hamm's). Can a Target and a Harris Teeter grocery store be far behind?
And for the first time in more than 50 years, the old Gunther's beer name has been restored to Southeast Baltimore. During the restoration of the old Gunther brewery, workers discovered its original sign, covered for five decades, under louvers. (A little point of history: While National Beer was long associated with the Orioles, Gunther had the first scoreboard at the old Memorial Stadium when the franchise returned in 1954.)
As developer Wells Obrecht tells it, he and others acquired a 30-acre tract of largely vacant industrial buildings and vacant land more than 10 years ago. These included the landmark National Bohemian property at Conkling and Dillon streets, which was renovated and converted into offices and storage area.
Obrecht said that an anticipated residential component of the area became bogged down by the recession. The co-developer, C. William Struever, withdrew from the project.
Struever recalled the night that architect Alex Castro conceived the Boh sign on a napkin at a Boston Street restaurant.
"The power of these authentic testimonials like the Boh sign is immeasurable," he said.
In 2005, the big neon Mr. Boh sign was turned on and immediately began sending a positive vibe across the southeastern skyline.
In recent months other partners joined up, including Hanover Co., a group that came to Baltimore nearly a decade ago and built Fells Point's The Crescent, where Michael Phelps once lived in a water-facing townhouse. Hanover is a large presence in Brewers Hill and has an up-and-running apartment building called Domain Brewers Hill.
"We're obviously bullish on East Baltimore," said Obrecht, president of the Brewers Hill development firm. "We thought it would happen sooner, but it's taken a while. Here we are, midway between Hopkins on Broadway and Hopkins Bayview. "
Obrecht is observing historic tax credit guidelines at the old Gunther's property. The boilerhouse will become a restaurant. He's preserving several of the massive tanks associated with the process of brewing beer.
City planner Chris Ryer, of the Southeast Community Development Corp., envisions a bigger picture. His group has been trying to fill vacant storefronts along Eastern Avenue in nearby Highlandtown. He says economists have told him it will take 3,000 new housing units to create the urban density to support a true retail revival in and around the old Haussner's restaurant and Conkling Square.
"The mayor has a goal of 10,000 new residents for Baltimore," Ryer said. "With these new units in Brewers Hill and in Greektown and others near Patterson Park, there will be 10 percent of that goal right here."
But don't count industrial Baltimore out. As I looked over our busy harbor and grid of urban streets, I heard a reassuring sound of the old city — a deep-pitched horn of a moving freight train passing near Haven Street.