The other day at Open Works, the sewing machines hummed. Power saws swirled. And a fancy computer router replicated an 1870 cornice (in PVC, not wood) for the restoration of a nearby East Biddle Street townhouse.
Harnessing the Energy was a structure in Greenmount West marked by an exterior mural and a deck outfitted with bright orange porch chairs. But no one was seated, except perhaps for a break for a coffee brewed on site by the local artisan company, Black Acres Roastery.
It is a “makerspace”, in which participants can share industrial machines (including sewing machines), tools and entire parts in a common environment. There are also many studios for rent. And there are practical courses in the evenings and on weekends.
The idea is that the space – formerly a Railway Express agency building just east of Pennsylvania Station at 1400 Greenmount Avenue – is a place where small makers create products that would otherwise be impossible to manufacture. at home. There are small makers, artisans, entrepreneurs, artisans and hobbyists who come through the doors of Open Works.
Highly frequented areas are the sewing room and the carpentry workshop. It also dovetails with the arts and creative community that spills out of the Johnston Square neighborhood west to Station North, places that are home to artists and creatives. Commuters (both car and rail) pass through this area daily; few realize the quiet (and not so quiet) hive of work that it is.
Will Holman, managing director of Open Works, once described the philosophy of the place as a YMCA for creators. It is a non-profit organization and its courses are open to the community.
Open Works debuted in 2016 and its studio spaces have been filling up nicely. As of 2020, it had 300 registered and paying members for studio spaces or classes. Then the pandemic hit and Open Works closed except for a small staff. But the work did not stop.
He actually sort of went into emergency mode. A group of six Open Works staff produced 28,000 plastic face shields, the majority of which were subsequently worn by Department of Agriculture meat and dairy inspectors. Another top prize went to the University of Maryland Medical System.
When the pandemic sent students from Baltimore City Schools to continue their learning at home, they were given laptops but often lacked desks to hold their computers. Open Works made 863 thick plywood desks that could be easily reassembled at home.
“The desks weren’t finished for the kids to decorate,” Holman said.
Commercial furniture company Room & Board has contracted with Open Works for a line of wooden stools (these may be plant stands) called the Hanneman model. The wood for these stools is repurposed from joists salvaged from townhouses and other structures being demolished.
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More recently, the France-Merrick Foundation of Baltimore donated a digital quilting machine to Open Works for Textile Artists. Holman predicts that it will become a big hit with these artists as well as hobby quilters.
Open Works was founded by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation. Its mission is to be “an incubator for Baltimore’s creative economy”. It is considered a wealthy neighborhood amenity that could help Baltimore craftsmen and engineering school graduates relocate to other cities. Its courses, like its sewing training program, serve as a form of workforce development.
Holman researched the history of the neighborhood, which was once something of an industrial park without being called out. A handful of factories and small industrial structures were scattered among the townhouse blocks that stretch down Greenmount Avenue. The Pennsylvania Railroad (now Amtrak) was also a dominant presence; passenger trains pass the south-facing windows of Open Work.
At one point, a railroad siding from Penn Station moved freight to the Open Works building, where drivers and their trucks in turn transported it to homes and businesses.
Just up the street were clothing manufacturers Lord Baltimore Press, Crown Cork and Seal, and Lebow Brothers. Today the area is known for the Copy Cat Building, City Arts Apartments, Area 405, Guilford Hall Brewery and Baltimore Design School as well as Green Mount Cemetery.
Holman is looking for more manufacturers to rent studios. The turnover caused by the pandemic shutdown has caused Open Works to lose 40% of its studio occupants, who pay $175 a month for permanent space. A day pass is $20 and allows use of machine inventory.
“I love this place,” said Jeremiah Jones, a sewing pro. “The opportunity created by the place is a huge community upheaval. This brings knowledge and access to our community.