For the last semester, students at the Maryland Institute College of Art have been recreating architectural details that once adorned 1920s-era rowhomes in West Baltimore.

One day in March, students showed off cornices they had molded from sawdust. The cornices were P-shaped, horizontal decorative molding with circle grooves etched into their sides. More fashion than function, these crown-like pieces once essentially connected the roofs to houses.

The students created the pieces as part of a class about historic architectural styles, but one that also infused lessons about the segregation era, the racial tensions that went along with it, and how they impacted West Baltimore neighborhoods. As part of the class, the cornices, trims, vent covers and other fixtures the students designed will be placed on renovated houses in those neighborhoods.

Student Kimari Hazward didn’t quite know what to expect when enrolling in the course taught by Sarah Doherty. The interdisciplinary sculpture major from Brooklyn, New York, was intrigued by the process of building things but was ultimately captivated by learning about what contributed to the decline in some historically Black Baltimore neighborhoods. It was an added bonus for Hazward to know the work done in the class would ultimately be used to rehab homes in blighted areas.

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“As a Baltimore transplant, it has been important to genuinely interact with the larger Baltimore community,” said the 28-year-old, who was one of 10 students in the class.

The class mixed hands-on craftsmanship with readings and lectures about urban renewal, discriminatory housing practices and how systemic racism weakened neighborhoods in Upton and along Pennsylvania Avenue. The lessons came full circle with the students working with Black Women Build, a Baltimore-based company that wants to create generational wealth by transforming vacant homes for to purchase, which in turn revitalizes neighborhoods.

MICA professor Sarah Doherty’s class makes cornice pieces on March 22, 2024 that will be installed on revitalized West Baltimore homes. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Doherty) (Photo courtesy of Sarah Doherty)

Specifically, students were taught about redlining, the discriminatory lending practice by banks that originated in Baltimore and created segregated neighborhoods; the Highway to Nowhere, which in the late 1960s destroyed close to 1,000 Black homes and businesses in West Baltimore in order to connect Interstate 70 coming from the west with Interstate 95; and how urban renewal, construction programs and effective concepts like Black Women Build have been used to combat decades of discrimination.

On the last day of class, the students gathered on Division Street in the Druid Heights neighborhood to celebrate their semester’s work and see the homes that would benefit from the fixtures they built. One in particular, a three-story brick rowhome, was expected to be completed by the end of the year. It was in desperate need of attention.

“There was a tree growing out of it. There was no back or roof,” said Black Women Build founder and owner Shelley Halstead. The space was previously purchased by a woman in 2008, she said, who “didn’t do anything” with it.

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Halstead admired the transitioning space and looked at the various stark-white painted fixtures that Doherty’s students made, which were lined up on street in front of it to be installed later.

“It’s beautiful,” she said of the students’ work. “I love uniformity.”

Halstead, a Baltimore transplant, is passionate about preserving history as well as uplifting the Black community.

“This is where Black middle-class people historically lived,” she said near a rented lift as a crew of workers measured an empty elevated doorway frame for a new set of steps. “There’s a socioeconomic aspect of who was living here.”

Shelley Halstead, founder of Black Women Build, smiles for a portrait outside West Baltimore homes she’s working on on May 3, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Doherty, who volunteered with Black Women Build in 2001, immediately loved the work the group did and dreamed of a way to meld her teaching at MICA with the mission of Halstead’s company.

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“Working with one’s hand is such a tangible, constructive thing. I understand that from teaching. And these women learn that through working with Shelley,” she said.

Doherty said she has been passionate about the dwelling aspect of the class for the past 20 years.

“It’s working in tandem,” she said of the collaboration between the class and Halstead’s group.

Pieces of cornice made by MICA professor Sarah Doherty’s class are laid out in front of the West Baltimore home where they’ll be installed on May 3, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)
Cornice made by MICA professor Sarah Doherty’s class is seen on the right beside a part of the building that will also be updated. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Natalie Jenkins, 23, a graduate student of the Mt. Royal School of Arts program at MICA, has been inspired by the class and lessons she learned.

“For me, it aligned a lot about what I talk about in my work. I like to focus on the relationship between home and place,” Jenkins said.

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James Orrell, 20, an Arlington, Virginia, native and sculpture major, said he was “happy to be a part of the work” even if it was in a “small way.”

He said since moving to Baltimore he has developed a passion for rowhomes.

“I want to help rebuild the community that was lost to the violence of systemic racism,” he added.

Doherty plans to teach the course again in the future.

“Yes, I’m very interested. I have very strong feelings about housing and human rights,” Doherty said. “It sets a really nice precedent how we can work together and how the university can extend some of its talent to help with the city’s fabric.”

John-John Williams IV is a diversity, equity and inclusion reporter at The Baltimore Banner. A native of Syracuse, N.Y. and a graduate of Howard University, he has lived in Baltimore for the past 17 years.

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