Baltimore Unity Hall opens June 17; Petula Caesar named its first director

Leaders at last July’s Unity Hall groundbreaking.

Baltimore’s newest arts and education hub is getting ready to open its doors, a big addition to the neighborhood.

Mayor Brandon Scott will lead a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Friday, June 17, at 9:30 a.m. for Baltimore Unity Hall, a $9.7 million re-constructed center for community arts, education and training at 1505 Eutaw Place. The event will include tours of the building and an exhibit about the area entitled, Division and Unity in Central West Baltimore.

The opening is followed by the No Boundaries Coalition Block Party the next day, Saturday, from noon to 4 p.m., on the Eutaw median park in front of Unity Hall. It will feature music, food trucks, kids’ activities assembled by Port Discovery and fresh produce from Fresh at the Avenue, plus local politicians.

Under construction since July, the project involved the conversion of a 1960s-era union hall to a 30,000-square-foot hub for programs and groups serving Bolton Hill, Madison Park, Upton and other Central West Baltimore communities. The renovated building contains offices and workspaces at below-market rents for non-profits and community organizations. It also has an auditorium, artist studios and exhibit areas that will make it a venue for community meetings, art shows and other cultural events.

The lower level has a workforce development center with a commercial kitchen and training and event spaces. Training will be provided at low or no cost to nearby residents seeking employment.

The non-profit board of Baltimore Unity Hall Inc. named Petula Caesar the founding director. Caesar, who started June 1, has worked in the non-profit and creative arts worlds in Baltimore for nearly two decades, most recently for the Women’s Housing Coalition.

“It’s not very often that you really get an opportunity to build something from the ground up,” she said. “I’m a person that enjoys charting new territory and creating new things. That drew me to this opportunity. Also, it feels like everything that I’ve done in my life is a part of this job. I can bring the experience that I have in the creative arts and the relationships I’ve made in those communities.

“I can bring the non-profit experience that I’ve had in the work that I’ve done there. I can bring the experience I’ve had as someone who has lived in the city and has seen all the versions of Baltimore that have existed [going back to the William Donald Schaefer era]. Having all that history about the city and all the things that it has gone through is very helpful in this role. It just seems like everything that I know and that I’ve done and that I’ve lived is something that can help me do this job.”

Caesar said she was also attracted by the board’s mission of creating a community hub that’s intended to help break down barriers and build a healthy neighborhood for all, by providing resources and a venue for creativity. Eutaw Place has long been a dividing line between relatively affluent areas such as Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon to the east and less affluent communities to the west. The name Unity Hall reflects the project’s mission to “unify” communities that typically don’t have much contact with each other.

A native of Paterson, NJ, Unity Hall director Caesar said she has lived in Baltimore for more than 40 years. A mother of two, she resides in East Baltimore’s Berea neighborhood.

“This building…sits on the perimeter of a lot of different neighborhoods that, for the most part, are known for their differences,” Caesar said. “The human condition kind of creates similarities in people, and sometimes it’s hard to see those similarities. One of the purposes of this place is to help us see those similarities in a situation where for so long people have just pointed to the differences.”

The three-story building opened in 1964 as the headquarters for the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers national union, one of the first examples of modern architecture in Bolton Hill. More recently, it was Empowerment Temple, which briefly used it for community programs but vacated several years ago. The renovation was led by a partnership of Memorial Apartments Corporation (MAC), loosely affiliated with Memorial Episcopal Church, and Somerset Development Company of D.C.

MAC, which acquired the site in 2019, and Somerset have worked together before. They renovated Memorial Apartments at 301 McMechen Street and renamed them the Linden Park Apartments, with 266 units for seniors. They used a former parking lot at McMechen Street and Eutaw Place as the footprint for The Jordan, a 62-unit market-rate apartment building with a street-level restaurant, The Tilted Row.

Ziger Snead is the architect for Baltimore Unity Hall and Southway Builders is the general contractor. Lenders include The Reinvestment Fund, a local non-profit, community development financial institution; and Premier Bank, a regional bank based in Youngstown, OH. 

Working with an advisory committee, the developers held a series of community listening sessions that led to a vision for the building’s use. Advisory committee members are Ateira Griffin of Building Our Nations Daughters (BOND), Nabeehah Azeez of No Boundaries Coalition, Emily Cory of Single Carrot Theatre, Washina Ford of The Community Builders, Stephanie Ray of Baltimore Music Box, David Hansen of The Samaritan Community, Grey Maggiano of Memorial Apartments Corporation and Jessica Wyatt, a consultant.

Baltimore Unity Hall Inc. has a master lease to oversee operations of the building. Nancy Hooff, president of Baltimore Unity Hall’s board and a principal of Somerset, said contractors are winding up work on the interior and build-out work is underway for individual tenants. The anchor tenants are No Boundaries Coalition, Single Carrot Theatre, The Community Builders, Baltimore Music Box and Building Our Nation’s Daughters (BOND). Hooff said the development team hasn’t started marketing the artists’ studios and the co-working space.

CBRE, a commercial broker, is showing the kitchen and events space to prospects. KLNB Management will oversee the facilities management. Hooff said KLNB manages operations for Motor House on North Avenue and Open Works makerspace on Greenmount Avenue and is familiar with the needs of arts organizations.

Besides working with the housing coalition, Caesar has worked for Baltimore Corps and the Baltimore Rock Opera Society. She covered arts, entertainment and culture, writing for City Paper, The Afro-American newspapers, and Baltimore magazine. In 2018, she released a memoir entitled “She’s Such A Bright Girl: An American Story,” in which she recounts an upbringing full of conflict and tension centered around colorism.

Ed Gunts