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Charmed Life

Old and in the Way

Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 10/23/2002

Sitting on the second floor of his half-renovated rowhouse, Brian Schwartz (pictured, with arms spread) looks a little awkward. The room is overrun with archeological artifacts, and as the rain drums obnoxiously loud on the roof, Schwartz tries to explain the course of events that led him to allow two amateur archaeologists do a "quick" survey of his backyard--a move that turned the 49-year-old computer consultant into the steward of an impressive collection of historic artifacts.

When Schwartz first inherited this house at the corner of Bond and Fleet streets from his father in 1994, its historic connection to Baltimore's Jewish history was already well-known. It was the site of Maryland's first synagogue, formed in 1830 when a small congregation rented the very room where Schwartz sits. (The group thrived and eventually emerged as the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.)

By the time they asked Schwartz if they could survey his property, amateur archaeologists Peter Middelthon (pictured,in striped jacket) and Doug Anderson were already well underway on their endeavor to explore not-yet-demolished historic sites in the city. "I've been stalking this one for years," Anderson says of the Schwartz property. (Anderson also notes that Fleet Street was once the water's edge and suspects that, just a block away, buried under Fells Point's industrial development, lies the famous Fell Shipyard.)

It didn't take much digging at Schwartz's property for Middelthon and Anderson to realize they had tapped into a rich vein of history: They unearthed 14 privies--a gold mine for the excavators, as everything from plates to coins were tossed in these holes back in the day.

"As I was restoring the building, I would give them a place to have their laboratory, a place where they can store their tools and continue digging the backyard while [I was] doing the restoration in the building," Schwartz says, pausing to look around at the broken bits of unearthed possessions discovered on his property, some of which are probably 200 years old. "It wasn't the best idea because the builders and archaeologists were kind of bumping heads. They were getting in each other's way."

At the time, Schwartz was just another guy trying to rehab a building for office space. Now he has a half-excavated 18th-century hearth carved out of the dirt on the ground floor of his building and enough artifacts to furnish a small museum. Ironically, of the estimated 15,000 archeological fragments that were dug from this property, only one--a small glass bottle with the Star of David on it--is thought to be linked to the city's first Jewish congregation.

Once Schwartz realized how much history was buried beneath his building, he called in professionals to take over the dig. Esther Doyle Read (pictured, kneeling), a city archeologist, obtained a $20,000 grant in 1999 from the Maryland Historic Trust to carry on the work with five professional excavators. Three years later, she hasn't stopped digging, and the boxes of artifacts and discoveries keep coming. There's enough pottery to indicate that this was a major 18th-century site and enough porcelain and china to indicate that a diverse flow of ethnic groups came through the building's doors. The history of Baltimore immigration could easily be stored in this one house.

"What you have at this lot is a microcosm of Baltimore, as whole groups of people came through, building capital, and had the money to move someplace else," Read says. "What you're looking at is a creation of new Americans in their new homes."

The property was originally a private residence, thought to be the home of an unpopular tax collector for the English Crown. It eventually became a grocery store, then a saloon, a boarding house (a whorehouse perhaps), and a flophouse.

Schwartz isn't exactly thrilled about his position as the de facto guardian of historic artifacts. It's not that he's not sympathetic to the cause, but Schwartz is a businessman and has neither the time nor the money to sink into extracurricular activities such as archeology. He has already invested $200,000 in the property, though it has been vacant for four years. He doesn't hold much hope of turning the treasure trove into a permanent and economically feasible tourist attraction, so it looks like the exploration will soon come to an end.

"One scenario," he says, looking at the exhibits set on tables around him, "is to pack all this stuff up in boxes and store it away in a basement--and that's a very likely scenario. The building would be used for offices, and the second floor, the room that had the first synagogue, would just be an office with a plaque on the wall."

Schwartz's experience illustrates the pathetic demise of Baltimore's interest in its archeological past. Fifteen years after Mayor William Donald Schaefer backed a then-burgeoning archeology movement, Baltimore's Center for Urban Archeology exists in name only (the organization was made homeless when the Baltimore City Life Museums were closed in 1997). Now, the last remnants of the city's archeology movement are holed up in Schwartz's nondescript corner house: on the third floor, surviving displays from the City Life Museum sit amid the tables of broken china, saloon bottles, and household goods.

"Once you have collected the data, what do you do with all these artifacts that are buried in the ground?" asks Barry Gittlen, professor of biblical and archeological studies at Baltimore Hebrew University, who helped archaeologists unearth many of the items found at the building.

Schwartz is not sure that he can come up with an easy solution. "Unless someone steps up, like a nonprofit or a corporation with some money, I've got to develop the place," he says.

Archaeologists have one month left to dig before Schwartz covers the hearth over with earth again and begins building a new home on the artifact-rich lot. At the very least, he says, he'll develop carefully so as not to disturb the archeological record still in the ground--and ensuring that the site will one day become someone else's problem.

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