Sav­ing the best of aban­doned row­houses

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND - Dan Ro­dricks dro­dricks@balt­sun.com

In the 1500 block of McKean Ave., on the western edge of Sand­town, men and women of the early 21st cen­tury pull apart what work­ers of the late 19th cen­tury built with ma­sonry and lum­ber: the twos­tory row­houses on the east side of the street. The houses come down pretty much the way they went up more than 120 years ago — joist by joist, brick by brick.

The idea is to save the best of the ma­te­rial for an­other use, to re­cy­cle pieces of left-for-dead Bal­ti­more for some­thing new — maybe an ad­di­tion on a row­house some­where else, a set of wooden ta­bles for a $4-a-cup cof­fee shop, walls of rough-sawn pine in a suite of of­fices.

Nearly 950,000 peo­ple once lived in Bal­ti­more, row­houses ev­ery­where, all of them filled with fam­i­lies at the city’s pop­u­la­tion peak.

But the num­ber of in­hab­i­tants de­clined by a third over the last half-cen­tury. Now, on this side street in West Bal­ti­more, all souls are gone. The houses on the west side have been boarded up.

A de­mo­li­tion crew cleared much of the east side of McKean years ago, leav­ing a large, grassy lot. Now the de­con­struc­tion crew from an out­fit called Brick + Board is in the process of bring­ing down what’s left — the last six houses near the south­east cor­ner.

On Tues­day morn­ing, Max Pol­lock led a crew of men and women in white hard hats, pulling bricks from each wall of an ex­posed row­house, sep­a­rat­ing hard, smooth face brick from the coarser com­mon brick that served as the in­ner layer of each wall. Af­ter chip­ping and brush­ing off the old mor­tar from each brick, the work­ers stacked them on pal­lets and wrapped them in plas­tic.

Pol­lock es­ti­mates that, in the six months that Brick + Board has been op­er­a­tion, it has sal­vaged for sale some 200,000 bricks.

And the floor joists — thick yel­low pine, three inches by eight inches and as long as each row­house was wide — have a mar­ket, too.

“We’ve sold 30,000 feet of it,” Pol­lock says, a lot of it for an of­fice build­ing un­der con­struc­tion else­where in the city.

Pol­lock su­per­vises Brick + Board and keeps a blog about the crew’s ad­ven­tures, the his­tory of the neigh­bor­hoods it vis­its and the homes it takes down.

The bricks were made in Bal­ti­more. The tim­bers, he found, came from North Carolina and Ge­or­gia, some from Vir­ginia. Pol­lock be­lieves a lot of the wood ar­rived here as logs, shipped up the Chesa­peake Bay aboard schooners to be milled in Bal­ti­more.

“On maybe one out of every 200 joists,” he says, “some­one painted the name of a [lum­ber] com­pany and the name of a schooner.”

A grad­u­ate of the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics who was em­ployed at a Washington think tank, the Ur­ban In­sti­tute, un­til a cou­ple of years ago, Pol­lock gets his hands dirty with his co-work­ers. Tues­day, he knocked bricks away from a sec­tion of Form­stone, scraped paint off face brick and tapped at it with a ham­mer to show off its su­pe­rior qual­ity.

Brick + Board is a so­cial en­ter­prise of the work­force de­vel­op­ment non­profit Hu­manim. Its mis­sion is to mar­ket the sal­vaged ma­te­rial from each row­house de­con­structed un­der a city con­tract. It soon will open a ware­house and show­room in Rem­ing­ton. Max Pol­lock, pro­gram su­per­vi­sor of Brick + Board, scrapes paint off face bricks. Brick + and Board, a so­cial en­ter­prise of the non­profit Hu­manim, sal­vages ma­te­ri­als for re­sale.

But could such an en­ter­prise be prof­itable, or at least cover costs, es­pe­cially with its pledge to pay a de­cent wage to its work­ers?

Pol­lock says there’s no short­age of de­mand for the fine Bal­ti­more brick and the strong old floor joists, pine floor­ing and even the strips of wooden lath that held the plas­ter walls in place. Un­der its con­tract with the city, Hu­manim must di­vert 95 per­cent of the waste from a land­fill, and Pol­lock says his Brick + Board crews al­ways meet and some­times sur­pass that goal.

The work­ers sal­vage at least 1,200 feet of joists from each house, some­times more. They save man­tels and stained-glass win­dows. They save every brick worth sav­ing. Bro­ken brick gets crushed and used to re­fill the foun­da­tions — now the graves — of the old row­houses of McKean Av­enue.

DAN RO­DRICKS/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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