Monday, September 13, 2010

Vote to Save the Hebrew Orphan Asylum – Do It Now!

A blog post by Dr. Deb Weiner, Research Historian and Geneologist.

Have you heard about the campaign to save Baltimore’s Hebrew Orphan Asylum? You can help out by voting online in the National Trust’s This Place Matters contest. It just takes a few seconds and you can do it from Baltimore Heritage Inc.’s website. Do it now because voting ends on September 15. If we win, it will really boost efforts to save this historic landmark.

The H.O.A. today.

Built in 1875, the H.O.A. is the oldest remaining Jewish orphanage building in the U.S. In my opinion it’s the second most important Jewish historical site in Baltimore (the first being the JMM campus with our two historic synagogues). The building served as an orphanage until around 1920, when it was sold to the West Baltimore General Hospital.

Lauren at the H.O. A.

A couple weeks ago my sister Lauren and I took a little jaunt over to West Baltimore to see the orphanage for ourselves. It’s even more impressive in person than it is in pictures. Words like “commanding,” “majestic,” and “imposing” come to mind when you’re standing in front of it. I was trying to imagine what a little 5-year-old orphan might have felt, when being led into the building for the first time.

An imposing entrance.

We have records from the H.O.A. here at the museum, and the stories of the children who lived there make for fascinating reading. There was the boy who kept running away from the orphanage to go back to his mother (who was in a “piteous condition”), the girl who was placed there because of “cruelty” on the part of her father and stepmother, and—more commonly—the four brothers and sisters who all arrived on the same day, eight days after their father died, because their mother was too poor to care for them. Most of the children were actually “half-orphans” from large families, with one impoverished parent at home taking care of some of the children while others were sent to the orphanage. Almost all the parents were immigrants, first from Germany and later from Russia and Poland.

A comfy ledge for orphans to hang out.

So what’s up with the property, you might ask. A Lutheran hospital occupied it for many years before relocating in the 1980s. The property sat vacant for over a decade before Coppin State University acquired it in 2003. Coppin has been sinking some $8,000 per month into the building, just to make sure it doesn’t deteriorate further, and the sum needed to renovate it is daunting: an estimated $14 million. But Coppin is committed to developing the property—it would be a fantastic resource for the university and the neighborhood.

The back of the building.

Meanwhile, Baltimore Heritage, Inc., has started a campaign to call attention to the building’s plight. It would be great if the Jewish community supported this effort. After all, it’s our history that they’re trying to preserve.

Contemplating the fate of the H.O.A.

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