The JEA Building Today: Or, A Building in Disguise

Posted on March 30th, 2017 by

Marvin and I recently had the privilege of touring the old JEA Building, now owned by our neighbors Helping Up Mission. There’s not much that physically remains from the Jewish Educational Alliance, but Tom Stone, Director of Facilities and Operations at Helping Up, was able to point out a few areas where clues to the building’s original use can still be seen.

Left: The JEA’s Levy Building, circa 1925. Gift of Jack Chandler, JMM 1992.231.105 Center: The Seafarer’s International Union Hall, circa 1970. Gift of Jack Chandler. JMM 1992.231.255 Right: 1216 E. Baltimore Street as it looks today. Taken by JMM staff, March 29, 2017

Left: The JEA’s Levy Building, circa 1925. Gift of Jack Chandler, JMM 1992.231.105
Center: The Seafarer’s International Union Hall, circa 1970. Gift of Jack Chandler. JMM 1992.231.255
Right: 1216 E. Baltimore Street as it looks today. Taken by JMM staff, March 29, 2017

In 1913, the JEA’s Levy Building opened for business at 1216 E. Baltimore Street. It was designed and built to their specifications, with classrooms, a two-level gymnasium, and two rooftop play areas – altogether, a modern, up-to-date facility for East Baltimore’s Jewish community.

The JEA basketball team posed in the gymnasium, 1921. Jacob Kadish is in the top right. Gift of Shirley Kadish Davids, JMM 2017.1.1

The JEA basketball team posed in the gymnasium, 1921. Jacob Kadish is in the top right. Gift of Shirley Kadish Davids, JMM 2017.1.1

Dedication of the Moses Hecht Work out room at the Jewish Education Alliance, 1944. Note the ceiling-high window (opening to the hall) and transom; traces of these can still be seen over the shorter 1950s doors in the current building.  Gift of Eleanor K. Levy, JMM 1991.20.5

Dedication of the Moses Hecht Work out room at the Jewish Education Alliance, 1944. Note the ceiling-high window (opening to the hall) and transom; traces of these can still be seen over the shorter 1950s doors in the current building. Gift of Eleanor K. Levy, JMM 1991.20.5

By the late 1940s, however, the building was no longer quite so modern, and much of the community it served had left the East Baltimore neighborhood. In 1952 the JEA merged with the Young Men’s and Women’s Hebrew Association and Camp Woodlands to form the new Jewish Community Center, and the old facility was sold to the Seafarer’s International Union (SIU).

“Seamen Open Modern Hall,” The Baltimore Sun, November 11, 1954.

“Seamen Open Modern Hall,” The Baltimore Sun, November 11, 1954.

The SIU, naturally enough, needed something a little different from the building. They modernized the façade, updated the infrastructure, and created new spaces designed to fit the needs of their members: a “hiring hall,” with notice boards advertising shipping jobs; rooms for card playing and pool tables; event spaces, including a solarium and a cocktail lounge; a large, modern cafeteria and kitchen; union offices; and a retail shop.  In some respects, the building’s new use was not too unlike the original: recreational, educational, and social spaces for an members of a specific community. Nonetheless, so complete was the transformation that the Baltimore Sun, in its 1954 description of the grand opening, noted “the structure… would never be recognized as the former Jewish Alliance Building.”

The Sun was right. About the only original element still easily visible from the outside is the rear rooftop deck, used as a playground by the JEA and a “sun deck” by the SIU.  It’s surrounded by a low brick wall and a high chain link fence, and it’s pretty much the only point of connection for modern viewers (such as myself) attempting to convince themselves that, yes, this really is the same building.

Left: Children playing on the JEA roof, circa 1945. Gift of Jack Chandler, JMM 1992.231.029 Right: The current view toward downtown from the rear roof deck. Taken by JMM staff, March 7, 2017

Left: Children playing on the JEA roof, circa 1945. Gift of Jack Chandler, JMM 1992.231.029
Right: The current view toward downtown from the rear roof deck. Taken by JMM staff, March 7, 2017

With a closer look, though, the JEA can still be seen: on the front, where the applied façade is cracked in tidy half-circles above the 3rd floor windows, mimicking the original brick arches underneath; inside, in the covered-over transoms peeping above the newer, shorter interior doors; and in the old gymnasium, left relatively alone but (for safety reasons) only visible from the doorway.

The arch of bricks above the window want to be seen! Taken by JMM staff, March 29, 2017

The arch of bricks above the window want to be seen! Taken by JMM staff, March 29, 2017

And yes, I apologize; I was distracted by reality and did not take many photos on our tour, so you’ll just have to imagine these things.  (And none of my photos of the gymnasium came out; it was pretty dark.) More visible, and more easily photographed, are parts of the SIU’s modern update, such as the “solarium” installed in what had been the JEA’s front rooftop playground, and the ship-like design of the SIU cocktail lounge on the first floor.

The SIU solarium, built where the front rooftop playground was originally. Taken by JMM staff, March 7, 2017

The SIU solarium, built where the front rooftop playground was originally. Taken by JMM staff, March 7, 2017

The jazzy maritime-themed SIU cocktail lounge included two porthole windows revealing tanks of fish.  The large kitchen (through the open door) was in an addition built by the SIU. Taken by JMM staff, March 7, 2017

The jazzy maritime-themed SIU cocktail lounge included two porthole windows revealing tanks of fish. The large kitchen (through the open door) was in an addition built by the SIU. Taken by JMM staff, March 7, 2017

Looking at the east side of the building from inside the 1950s addition, you can see where the smooth, modern façade was applied directly over the original brick.  Taken by JMM staff, March 7, 2017

Looking at the east side of the building from inside the 1950s addition, you can see where the smooth, modern façade was applied directly over the original brick. Taken by JMM staff, March 7, 2017

So yes, those of you who – like me – doubted that this is the same building, it turns out that if you remove the front stoop and change the classical windows to big sheets of plate glass, the whole character of a building is altered. But behind the mid-century disguise, the original elements can still tell part of their story.  And thus ends your architectural history lesson for the day.

JoannaA blog post by Collections Manager Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.

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