Preservation Society works to save historic buildings in Fell's Point

Preserving 220 years of history
Posted at 6:40 PM, Mar 09, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-10 09:46:26-05

Nestled among the hip bars and trendy restaurants of Fell's Point are two buildings on S. Wolfe Street that have seen better days.

"You can easily just walk by and totally miss them," said David Gleason, a member of the Preservation Society.

But once you see them, it's hard not to notice them. They sit wedged between two tall, beautiful brick buildings. They need a paint job, the roof needs repair and the back half of the buildings are falling apart.

What you can't easily see is their long history, which dates back 220 years. They were constructed in 1797, the same year Fell's Point became incorporated with the city of Baltimore.

They were built for ship caulkers who worked in the ship yards at Fell's Point. According to city registries, the tenants in the homes, which were once four units, were free African Americans.

"They could make and do the deals they wanted to do," said Gleason, "And who [were] contributing economically to the vitality of the neighborhood and to Baltimore City."

The buildings are now owned by the Preservation Society and it has launched a campaign to save the homes, nicknamed The Sisters, from becoming a pile of scrap wood.

"They provide a tangible part of our history. We can see and understand how the city grew, how various economic developments happened, and the contributions everyone made to the economic developments," said Gleason. 

Very few photos and documents exist about the homes, so it's up to Bryan Blundell to play history detective. Blundell is president of Dell Corporation, an architecture preservation company.

"I really enjoy the buildings that are the step-child of preservation," he said. "This isn't some famous person so there's going to be lots of money. This is a challenge."

Blundell looks in every crevice, at every roof line, the wall paper, what's under the wall paper, etc. to search for clues. He said the most miniscule detail could unearth a vast amount of information.

"It's something where a new discovery could happen almost every time you come here," he said.

And The Sisters could have ties to one of history's most famous slave-turned-abolitionst Frederick Douglass. Blundell said Douglass lived not too far from the homes on S. Wolfe Street. If he can find documents to show the tenants of the homes were free African Americans, which was around the time Douglass worked in Fell's Point, it could connect him to not only the families, but the buildings too.

"To be able to tie him to these humble beginnings, it shows how important even the most ordinary things can turn out to be," said Blundell.

The hope is to turn the buildings into a cultural center or research facility. It will take time and money to re-purpose the buildings, but Gleason says it is well worth the efforts.

"Its important these houses remain and continue our look into our past so we can understand where we are going."

The Preservation Society is holding a series of free lectures, beginning with one about The Sisters on March 30. You can check out the group's website for more details.

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