April 2, 2024

Baltimore's Hebrew Orphan Asylum Finds a New Way to Serve its Community

On October 25, 2023, the Center for Health Care and Healthy Living in Baltimore, Maryland, officially opened its doors in the newly renovated Hebrew Orphan Asylum. A national historic site since 2010, the building had served as an orphanage in the late 19th and early 20th century, and then as a hospital for 66 years, but sat unoccupied since 1989. Rehabilitated over more than a decade by the Coppin Heights Community Development Corporation with support from Baltimore Heritage, and with the help of federal and state tax credits, the site is again serving as a beacon of community care in the majority-Black Mosher neighborhood that has fought against neglect and divestment for half a century.

Exterior view of a large brick building with a sign for Southway Builders in the front.

photo by: Southway Builders

Exterior of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum following rehabilitation in 2020.

From Orphanage to Community Hospital

The Hebrew Orphan Asylum was the brainchild of Baltimore merchant William Rayner. Orphaned in childhood, Rayner was a leader of the German-Jewish community in Baltimore and one of the founders of the Hebrew Benevolent Society. He donated the land in 1869, and, after a fire destroyed the Asylum’s original building, led the change to erect a new one. Today, the 1876 building is the oldest purpose-built Jewish orphanage in the United States.

The orphanage closed in 1923 and was soon transformed into the West Baltimore General Hospital. Later renamed the Lutheran Hospital of Maryland, it served West Baltimore until 1989.

When the hospital opened its doors, the surrounding residents were almost exclusively white, segregated by a combination of racial covenants, zoning, and community pressure that ensured Black Baltimoreans would not move into the area. But after 1950, Black residents began to move to the neighborhood, while white residents fled to the suburbs. By 1960, the neighborhood was almost exclusively Black.

“At one time, because of the hospital, [this neighborhood] had the highest healthcare access for African Americans in the state,” said Gary Rodwell, executive director of the Coppin Heights Community Development Corporation. Nearly two decades after the hospital closed, “everybody in the neighborhood still had some story about the hospital and how it had changed their lives.”

Through the 1990s, the once-majestic building fell into disrepair. It lost all of its windows; even the roof caved in. In 2003, Coppin State University bought the building along with a number of others that had once been part of the Lutheran Hospital. Concerned about the cost of renovating and maintaining a historic structure that was in such poor shape, the administration immediately began to consider demolishing it.

Fighting for Survival

That same year, Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage, found out about Coppin State’s plans. His organization jumped into action, spreading the word through their preservationist networks and seeking funds to save the building.

“And then Gary Rodwell fell from heaven,” said Hopkins.

Rodwell first heard about the Hebrew Orphan Asylum when he was appointed director of the Coppin Heights Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization run out of Coppin State University. A community organizer with experience coordinating advocacy on a variety of issues, he had no particular interest in historic preservation at the time.

But when he found out about the project from then-Coppin State president Reginald Avery, he quickly came to understand what it symbolized. “[The Hebrew Orphan Asylum] was like a ghost. It reminded people of their current state of powerlessness. And as an organizer, my raison d'etre is to create opportunities for pathways to power.”

Hopkins, with his knowledge and understanding of preservation practices and resources, and Rodwell, with his experience working with government and university officials to fight for underserved communities, made the ideal duo to lead the preservation effort. Their first step was to get the Hebrew Orphan Asylum on the National Register for Historic Places, which they did in 2010–with the encouragement of President Avery, but largely without the blessing of the University of Maryland.

“Dr. Avery knew that by signing [the paperwork] to get the building on the National Register, he would be going against the university system’s wishes, so he was very hesitant about it,” recalled Rodwell. “But I went to his office and said, Doc, you have got to sign this. We’ve got to do this. So he did.”

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“It was [the community’s] drive to preserve the building that motivated me,” Rodwell added. That’s why, after hearing from community members about the hospital that had occupied the Hebrew Orphan Asylum and considering their needs, they decided to turn it into a health center.

But first, they needed to transform a 150-year-old building with no roof and no windows, home to racoons and perilous to navigate, into something that could stand the test of time. And that would take money.

A New Vision for Healthcare in a Historic Building

Thankfully, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum’s National Register status opened the doors to grants and tax credits that would not have otherwise been available to them. By 2013, they had earned $10 million in state and federal funding, thanks to a Federal Historic Tax Credit and a competitive Sustainable Communities tax credit from the State of Maryland.

Hopkins said, “The Maryland Historical Trust was a great partner and champion. They came in very early with an award of state historic tax credits, the largest award they made that year. Their tax credit officers spent countless hours at the site helping the architects and contractors think through design solutions that were faithful to the historic building, and worked for the new uses that would go in."

A view of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum looking from the top down.

photo by: Southway Builders

Aerial view of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum during rehabilitation.

In 2014, the University of Maryland sold the building to the now-independent Coppin Heights Community Development Corporation, further securing its future.

A significant breakthrough came when the city of Baltimore approved a 15 year lease, taking the project a step closer to completion and the neighborhood closer to their dream of better healthcare access. The city health department had been seeking a home for a Crisis Stabilization Center, the first of its kind in Maryland. Managed by Behavioral Health Systems Baltimore, the center provides space for people struggling with addiction and acute medical needs to receive medical care and get connected with social services.

Where other neighborhoods had rejected proposals for the city to open such a facility nearby, the Coppin Heights CDC and its constituents embraced the idea. “The neighborhood had the foresight to acknowledge the national addiction crisis, and then do something about it when a lot of people are just sticking their heads in the sand,” said Hopkins. After a one-year pilot program at Turek House next door, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum is now the permanent home of the center.

Looking down into a building under construction you can see a few people in the cavity working on masonry and other pieces.

photo by: Southway Builders

A look at the inside of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum during rehabilitation.

Preservation and Change

Today, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum is 100 percent occupied. Along with the Stabilization Center, it boasts a number of other healthcare services, from chronic disease prevention to maternal and childhood health.

The building has won several preservation awards, but Rodwell is quick to point out that the Hebrew Orphan Asylum project did more than save an old orphanage from destruction. “The building symbolizes what a community can do if a community comes together, organizes for power, develops a vision, and then works to have that vision become a reality.”

The project also served to solidify a unique partnership between the Coppin Heights CDC and Baltimore Heritage. The two organizations are working together on a number of new projects, including the rehabilitation of homes on North Avenue in West Baltimore, and even on new construction projects. “Our support for Coppin Heights CDC is in its entirety,” said Hopkins. “Our focus is on helping historic neighborhoods become more healthy, and that can include rehabbing old buildings, but it can also include demolition, and new construction.”

Most importantly, Rodwell believes that the project can be a model for how community organizations can work together with preservationists to improve the lives of the people they represent.

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Rebecca Ortenberg is a public historian, digital storyteller, and wrangler of people and ideas. She has served as the managing editor for Lady Science, a magazine and podcast about women in the history of science, and has written for the Science History Institute's Distillations magazine. Though she has adopted Philadelphia as her home, she will always be a West Coaster at heart.

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