News & Community

100 Years: Baltimore Gets a New Downtown

Part of our "100 Years: The Twelve Events That Shaped Baltimore" series

Mention the much-ballyhooed renaissance of Baltimore’s downtown, and what names come to mind? The guess here is that in most any roomful of random Baltimoreans, the two names most likely to pop up are those of politician William Donald Schaefer and developer James Rouse.

This is fair enough, as far as it goes. As Mayor in the 1970’s, Schaefer pushed the Inner Harbor project forward with a highly effective, always entertaining mix of political wiles and manic boosterism. He was in charge that day in 1976 when a fleet of tall ships sailed into the harbor, drawing throngs of tourists to a city that never realized before that such a thing might be possible.

Rouse earned his renaissance stripes a little later. When the shopping and dining pavilions designed by his Rouse Company opened on the Inner Harbor in 1980, they transformed the development from a playground for locals into an international model for the redevelopment of urban waterfronts that would inspire the likes of Barcelona, Belfast, and Sydney to turn their old port districts into tourist destinations.

But while Schaefer and Rouse did their fair share, their names don’t come close to telling the whole story of the renaissance. For that fuller tale, there’s no better source to turn to than Martin Millspaugh.

Millspaugh has been in the thick of downtown redevelopment issues for the last five decades. In the 1950’s, he covered downtown issues for The Evening Sun. Then, after a stint working on urban renewal issues for the federal government, he signed on in 1960 to help lead the redevelopment effort. Today, Millspaugh is playing the role of historian; he’s making a documentary film for the nonprofit Urban Land Institute about the renaissance.

Ask him to broach this topic, and the two-hour discussion that ensues will touch on dozens of names well worth remembering: J. Jefferson Miller, David Wallace, Hunter Moss, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., Theodore McKeldin, Robert Embry Jr., and more.

“That’s one of the amazing things to me about this subject,” Millspaugh says. “Whenever some obstacle loomed up ahead, it seemed like the right person just came along out of the woodwork and took care of it. The cumulative force of people getting together to accomplish something important like this, that’s a powerful thing.”

The story Millspaugh spins unfolds in three chapters. The first opens a couple of days after Christmas 1954, when news broke that the historic O’Neill’s department store was about to shut its doors. Even today, Millspaugh adopts a wistful tone when recalling this turn of events.

“I remember so well going there with my mother when I was a kid,” Millspaugh says. “It was kind of like the Saks Fifth Avenue of Baltimore, a place that people just revered.”

The demise of O’Neill’s struck Baltimore like a sharp slap in the face. It forced civic leaders to take a hard look at the reality of the damage the new postwar economy was doing to downtown. The suburbs were booming, taking middle- and upper-income families out of the city—and away from downtown’s stores and services.

Baltimore’s port was dying. The shipping industry was now using a new generation of container ships too big to maneuver in the cramped Inner Harbor. As a result, the waterfront warehouses that had served Baltimore so well for centuries were fast becoming obsolete.

The situation with office space wasn’t much better. Only one new office building had gone up downtown since the 1920’s. Vacancy rates were at 25 percent and climbing in some places. In the five short years between 1952 and 1957, the assessed value of downtown real estate dropped 10 percent.

“It was such a desperate time, and there was so little hope,” Millspaugh says. “But looking back, it sort of helps to explain why Baltimore was able to accomplish what it did before so many other cities. We were so far behind that we ended up ahead of them. We didn’t have any choice but to try something dramatic.”

“Jeff” Miller, the executive vice president at Hecht’s and a leader of the Retail Merchants Association, convened an emergency meeting of department store owners in the wake of the O’Neill’s closing. He convinced them to launch a new Committee for Downtown and to provide $150,000 in seed money to get it off the ground. The then-fledgling Greater Baltimore Committee soon tossed another $75,000 to the pot.

By Millspaugh’s calculation, that $225,000 adds up in today’s dollars to $1.5 million. That was enough to assemble a planning team headed by Hunter Moss, chair of the GBC’s Planning Council, and David Wallace, a Philadelphia-based city planner.

“David was able to bring in a real blue-ribbon group of young designers,” Millspaugh recalls. “The first thing they did was make a very smart strategic decision. Instead of trying to fix all of downtown, they decided to focus on just one project, something big enough to make a difference but small enough to actually achieve within a relatively short time frame.”

The target they selected was the 33 acres between Charles, Liberty, Saratoga, and Lombard streets. This stretch represented downtown at its worst, Millspaugh explains. He describes it as a “valley of depression” separating the still-healthy financial district to the south and east from the Howard Street corridor to the west that still boasted three popular department stores.

The Charles Center redevelopment plan was unveiled in March of 1958. It called for tearing 85 percent of the site down to the ground, leaving just five old buildings standing. It envisioned a mixed-use development featuring retail, hotel, residential, and office developments interspersed with public plazas and pedestrian skywalks.

“Everyone saw that it was a good plan, but there was still a lot of pessimism at that point,” Millspaugh says. “People would say, ‘We love it! It’s beautiful! But it’ll never happen. This is Baltimore, and things like this don’t get done here.'”

Viewed by today’s standard of civic undertakings, what happened next is difficult to fathom—a mad rush of commitment, unanimity, and selflessness among civic leaders in support of the project. Businessman Isaac Hamburger publicly endorsed a plan that demolished the building that housed his family’s clothing store, a building he’d just spent a small fortune remodeling. Elected city officials raised nary a peep of objection to a plan that demolished a public parking structure that was pretty much brand new. City leaders dangled a princely salary in front of Miller to take on the job of heading up the project; he told them to drop the salary to $1 a year.

In June, Governor McKeldin put Charles Center on the agenda of a special session of the state legislature and pushed the necessary legislation through at breakneck speed. In November, voters overwhelmingly approved $25 million in bond issues to finance acquisition and demolition costs. In March of 1959—one short, frantic year after it was proposed—the City Council and Mayor D’Alesandro signed off on the plan.

The rights to develop the first lot in Charles Center went to the Chicago-based Metropolitan Structures. Designed by the world-renowned architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, One Charles Center was located on the site of the old O’Neill’s department store. It was still going up when Millspaugh signed on to become deputy general manager of the Charles Center project in 1960.

“We had three buildings finished and six others committed by 1963,” Millspaugh says. “We proved to the skeptics that we could do this.” The next year, the Charles Center project picked up the first of what would eventually become a slew of urban design and revitalization awards.

The success of Charles Center was an indispensable step on the road to the Inner Harbor. In fact, Moss and Wallace (along with local leaders) had considered tackling the waterfront first, instead of Charles Center. But sheer logistics scared them off: How long might it take to assemble a workable redevelopment site out of a mishmash of nearly 1,000 small parcels owned variously by the city, the state, the federal government, and private companies?

The second chapter of the renaissance story opens in 1963, when McKeldin—who by this point had left the governor’s mansion and gotten himself elected mayor—decided that the time had come at last to see whether Baltimore could make something of its waterfront. He called Wallace back from Philadelphia. He had Miller and Millspaugh head up a new entity called Charles Center–Inner Harbor Management, Inc. Later, city housing commissioner Robert Embry Jr. came aboard to oversee the initiative.

The Inner Harbor Master Plan they developed was ready in 1964; the first project was completed in 1967. But the logistics were difficult. The first phase of the plan called for office and retail construction along Pratt Street, but it wasn’t until 1972 that the state’s board of public works approved construction of the proposed World Trade Center. Next up came the reconstruction of bulkheads and the development of parkland and a public promenade on the water; that was completed in 1973.

This is the point when the charismatic Schaefer and his Office of Promotion started going into overdrive. They launched a series of gimmicky “Sunny Sunday” celebrations on the water, and they moved the city fair down to the harbor. Soon enough, the Maryland Science Center was going up on the harbor, and plans to build an aquarium had been announced.

“But I have to tell you, that was all the Inner Harbor was ever supposed to be,” Millspaugh says. “It was planned as a playground for Baltimoreans, and it never occurred to anyone back then that Baltimore could be a successful tourist attraction. It might look in hindsight like it all unfolded in a logical progression, but no one involved in planning it saw it unfolding that way.”

And so the third chapter of the renaissance story brings us full circle, to the bicentennial summer of 1976 and the arrival of those tall ships—and all the out-of-towners who came to gawk at them. Next came the National Aquarium, the Rouse-designed pavilions, the Hyatt Regency, and more—much, much more than anyone involved in planning the project ever really envisioned.

Millspaugh breaks out a map of downtown and runs a finger out toward what was then an industrial wasteland east of the Inner Harbor, below Little Italy—the area now known as Harbor East. “Sometimes we used joke about how that was going to turn into Baltimore’s Gold Coast someday,” Millspaugh says. “Then somebody in the room would say, ‘Yeah, right,’ and we’d all laugh at how ridiculous we sounded.”

Why It Matters

• As the city’s center—including its outmoded, rotting piers—began to empty and decay, a group of visionary civic leaders worked to build a new downtown.

• Two projects (Charles Center and Harborplace) gave Baltimore’s commercial heart a new base upon which it eventually built a glittering Inner Harbor that continues to be the city’s celebrated public centerpiece.