A Legendary Baltimore Nightclub Becomes an Education Hub
A brightly colored, half-timbered building at 21 E. North Ave. in Baltimore was once the entertainment hub of what is now the city’s Station North Arts District. Starting in 1976, the site formerly housed Odell’s nightclub, a beloved institution where locals and out-of-towners alike would flock to the dance floor and remain there until the early hours of the morning.
The club’s late founder and namesake, Odell Brock, wanted to create a place where Baltimore’s Black community could “come and dance and laugh and love and feel safe,” his wife, Jackie Brock, says. And he accomplished just that. To this day, she says, people fondly rehash their memories, telling her that they had some of the best times of their lives at Odell’s.
But those good times didn’t last forever. Odell Brock died in 1985, and a few years later, the club shuttered. While its legacy endured in people’s hearts and minds, the physical space remained vacant and deteriorated in subsequent years along with the surrounding commercial district.
Still, it was always a tempting adaptive reuse candidate both because of its place in Baltimore’s cultural history and the beauty of its architecture, says Charlie Duff, the president of Jubilee Baltimore, a nonprofit developer that seeks to revive the city’s historic neighborhoods.
Finally, in 2016, the city put the building up for public auction, and Jubilee made its move, spending $400,000 to acquire the property. The firm then launched an extensive $6.5 million rehabilitation project aided by state and federal historic tax credits. Additionally, the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC) provided $1.7 million in New Markets tax credits as part of its Irvin Henderson Main Street Revitalization Fund, which focuses on catalytic projects located within Main Street communities that create jobs and provide social services.
Six years later, the structure is buzzing with activity once again thanks to a fresh look and the presence of two education-focused nonprofit tenants, Arts for Learning Maryland and Code in the Schools.
"The redevelopment of the Odell’s building has created invaluable educational opportunities for Baltimore City students and growth for the organizations supporting them," says NTCIC President Merrill Hoopengardner.
“[Odell’s] means an awful lot to a lot of people,” Duff adds. “People had been looking at it fall into ruin. Now, they can look at it with pride.”
A Dynamic History
Odell’s is the most iconic tenant in the 1909 building’s history, but early in its run, it housed Buick dealership. In fact, that’s part of why the building’s architecture is unique, Duff says. Around 1915, he explains, the style of American car dealerships was largely standardized, so this one snuck in under the wire, when designers still had free reign. “The exterior of the building is pretty remarkable. It looks like an Elizabethan inn,” Duff says, adding that its half-timbered appearance is a bit misleading since the facade does not actually contain any wood—it’s all masonry.
Several other businesses occupied the building throughout the 20th century. Early on, while salesmen were still pushing cars on the first floor, students of Dr. Albert V. Tuttle’s Dancing Academy graced the second floor. The school remained there until its namesake died in the 1940s.
By the late 1930s, the car dealerships on North Avenue moved away as the neighborhood transformed into a popular date-night spot. Movie theaters and inexpensive restaurants swooped in, Duff says, including at 21 E. North Ave. Ultimately, the Brock family took over the space and turned it into something special.
Jackie Brock says there was nothing in Baltimore like Odell’s at the time. Anywhere with a liquor license had to shut its doors by 2 a.m., she says, so her husband decided to serve only punch and provide a place where people could dance all night.
Brock says they built their reputation through word of mouth and self-produced flyers. On opening night, a line wrapped around the block, and the club only became more popular after that.
Theme nights were a big factor in Odell’s success. One of Brock’s favorite moments was when her husband came up with the idea to throw a beach party. They poured sand all over the hardwood floor—which wasn’t great for it in the long run, Brock says with a smile—and people came dressed in swimsuits carrying beach toys.
Brock was also fond of Monday nights, when the club’s DJ, Wayne Davis, played his best music. Those were the nights frequented by members of Baltimore’s LGBTQ community.
“Nobody ever wanted to leave,” Jackie Brock says.
The New Kids on the Block
The building’s current tenants have very different functions than Odell’s. The first floor is occupied by Arts for Learning Maryland, a statewide organization that trains artists and teachers to collaborate and use the arts to teach students literacy and math. On the second floor is Code in the Schools, which, as its name suggests, teaches kids how code. But if you look closely enough, there is a throughline between their missions and what the Brocks built before them.
Odell’s wasn’t just about the music—it was also about building a community. “You’ll know if you belong,” was what people said about the club.
Stacie Sanders Evans, the president and CEO of Arts for Learning Maryland, says she really wanted to show how the nonprofit’s mission aligned with Odell’s, while Code in the Schools co-founder and CEO Gretchen LeGrand says it was important to her philosophically that they find a home on North Ave.
“What makes our work at Arts for Learning work? Our teachers create a sense of belonging,” Evans says. “What was created on the dance floor, we are creating in the classroom.”
Sanders adds that it was important that Jackie Brock and her daughter, Erin, were supportive of the building’s rehabilitation and future. So, she reached out and invited them to last year’s ribbon-cutting, where they had a “first dance” to commemorate the site’s legacy. Now, memorabilia from Odell’s can be seen throughout the first floor.
Jackie Brock says she thinks the new building does indeed honor her husband’s legacy. “It makes me feel like his spirit is still there,” she says.
A Creative Rehabilitation
When Ziger Snead Architects, which designed the first-floor interior, and Quinn Evans Architecture, which designed the second-floor interior and the exterior, got to work on the project, it was in rough shape.
“It was a burned-out shell, down to brick walls and graffiti,” Jim Smith, a Quinn Evans associate who spent three years as the Odell’s project manager, says.
That gave them a fair amount of freedom when it came to the interior design, but the goal for both firms was to pay homage to the open spaces that were present in the designs throughout the building’s history; spatial flexibility and transparency were emphasized throughout the rehab. Brightly colored walls give the offices a welcoming feeling, an important element for spaces that cater to students.
“All of that is about building community inside the organization and catalyzing community building outside,” says Ann Powell, principal at Ziger Snead.
Most of the preservation work took place on the exterior. Quinn Evans restored the original roof tiles and replicated missing elements in the cast-in-place concrete and brick masonry. The firm also oversaw a complete window replacement. Two original 8-foot-tall windows remained on the side, while one diamond-paned window survived on the front. Those served as the basis for the in-kind replacements.
The facade also received a paint job. The grey and yellow may not be historically accurate, since the firm was adhering to a black and white photo from 1909, but Smith says the goal was to get it to stand out on the street.
The Future of Station North
The revitalization of Odell’s is exciting, but it’s not the end game. A decade ago, Duff says, the Station North commercial district was about 80 percent vacant. That number has fallen significantly, dropping to its current-day rate of about 35 percent, and Duff says Jubilee’s hope is that the number eventually reaches zero.
Projects like Odell’s, he says, should continue to lay the groundwork for larger opportunities like what’s brewing at nearby Pennsylvania Station, Baltimore’s Amtrak hub. Quinn Evans is restoring the building and it should be home to office space and restaurants within the next couple of years.
Of course, such revitalization projects raise questions about gentrification. But Duff says Jubilee is focused on making sure people don’t get priced out of the neighborhood, explaining that his organization aims to build socioeconomically and ethnically diverse neighborhoods throughout the city.
“A large part of Jubilee’s mission is to get people to use their city,” Duff says. “Odell’s is one building, it’s not going to change the world, but it’s part of the changing.”
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