New Life for Old Jewish Landmark

For local historian Deb Weiner, the 19th-century Hebrew Orphan Asylum building "shows how the (Jewish) community was becoming more affluent."
For local historian Deb Weiner, the 19th-century Hebrew Orphan Asylum building “shows how the (Jewish) community was becoming more affluent.”

Baltimore historic preservationists and those hoping to improve the lives of some of the city’s poorest residents were pleased by the recent news that the Hebrew Orphan Asylum building in West Baltimore would soon be refurbished and put to good use.

The building, believed to be the oldest existing Jewish orphanage in the country, was built in 1815 as a country home, later used as headquarters for the Baltimore City and County almshouse and became home to the children of poor Jewish immigrants after it was purchased and donated by William Rayner, an affluent German Jewish businessman in 1873.

“I think it’s an incredibly important building,” said local historian Deb Weiner of the Romanesque-style building designed by architects Edward Lupus and Henry A. Roby. “After B’nai Israel and the Lloyd Street Synagogue, it’s probably the most important building to the Baltimore Jewish community.

“It represents the era, in the 19th century, when Jews started to build charities,” Weiner continued. “It shows how the community was becoming more affluent and could afford it.”

With Rayner leading the charge, the orphanage was established under the auspices of the Hebrew Benevolent Society, one of the city’s earliest charitable organizations. In 1874, it burned down; it was replaced two years later with funds quickly raised by the Jewish community. Though it was started for German Jewish orphans, it also served Eastern European Jews who arrived in later years, said Weiner.

As was typical for the time, most of the children housed in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum weren’t truly orphans, she explained. “Most were kids whose parents were too poor to care for them. Sometimes a family would have eight kids and they would put the two youngest in the orphanage temporarily.

“Many times, these were the children of single-parent homes,” she added. “Very few stayed for their whole childhoods.”

Although the orphanage was strict and regimented, records from the days when it was in operation suggest that it was a relatively pleasant place to grow up.

In the early 1900s, said Weiner, Eastern European immigrants started their own orphanage on the East Side, where it was more accessible to Jewish neighborhoods in East Baltimore.

The two orphanages merged in 1921, shortly after the Jewish Children’s Bureau was established as an umbrella organization for existing child welfare agencies. The community again raised funds to build a brand new orphanage on Belvedere Avenue.

The new orphanage, known as Levindale, was built amid protestations from social workers who warned that child-care trends were shifting away from orphanages toward the foster care model. Levindale Orphanage closed in 1923, and its mission changed to what it has been ever since — a home for the elderly.

Meanwhile, the original Hebrew Orphan Asylum building was sold to the West Baltimore General Hospital. It was used for that purpose until 1945, when it was acquired by the Lutheran Hospital of Maryland. The Lutheran Hospital moved in 1989, and the building sat vacant and in disrepair until it was purchased by Coppin State University, a member of the University System of Maryland, in 2003. Though the university took steps to stabilize the building’s structure, it lacked the money to rehabilitate it. The building seemed doomed for destruction.

“We got involved when there was a proposal to demolish the building,” said Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage, Inc. and a board member of the Coppin Heights Community Development Corporation. “Then Coppin State got a new president who thought the building was an asset.”

Hopkins and his colleagues worked with Coppin State to get the building on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.

“It was a slam-dunk,” said Hopkins, “since the building was so significant both architecturally and historically.”

With support from Coppin State, in 2012, the Coppin Heights Community Development Corporation, Baltimore Heritage, Inc. and architectural firm Kann Partners were granted a $2.5 million tax credit from the Maryland Sustainable Communities Tax Credit program. A state study later concluded that the neighborhood around the building was one of the five least healthy in the state, leading Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown to announce that the neighborhood would encompass one of five new Health Enterprise zones.

The Coppin Heights Community Development Corporation will now restore the building and create a full-service medical facility called the Center for Health Care and Healthy Living.

Hopkins couldn’t be happier that the project is rapidly moving forward.

“The drawings are done, and we were just cleared to put the project on the agenda of the Board of Public Works,” he said. “Between the superlative history of the building and the revitalization [it represents] for the neighborhood, there has been nothing but support for this project at every level.”


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