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WFBR Radio

The building that formerly housed WFBR Radio in Baltimore has had many lives and uses, and pulling apart the history of when one ended and another began can be a bit of a challenge. According to a terrific article by Brennen Jensen on Baltimore Heritage it was originally a car dealership and bi-level garage built in 1913 - a fancy one, too, as "part of the second floor housed a chauffeur’s lounge, replete with smoking room and billiard tables." Owners and brands changed throughout the years.

WFBR, or "World's First Broadcasting Regiment", was Maryland's first broadcast radio station and was founded in the 1920s on the 1300 kHZ signal by the "officer's association of the 5th Regiment, Maryland, in whose Armory on Preston St. it broadcast from," according to Wikipedia. It's unclear when WFBR moved to the second floor of the 10 E. North Avenue building, but it's probable that it was at the same time the 1,000 seat, climate controlled Centre Theatre opened in the building in 1939. Cinema Treasures reports that "It was the first theatre in the city equipped for radio broadcasting in-house (other theatres had broadcast via remote before) and the first with the ability to project live television on the screen." The theater's Art Moderne auditorium, fittingly compared by Jensen to a Bakelite radio, was a marvel of elegant design and won Baltimore's architectural blue ribbon. It is long gone, destroyed after it closed in 1959 by the Equitable Trust Company in the process of converting the first floor into a check processing center. While it's said that some traces of the theater's lobby remained, I certainly wasn't able to find any while I was there.

In 1987 WFBR's star shock-jock DJ Johnny Walker left and the station lost the rights to broadcast Orioles games to a rival. It was sold the following year to Infinity Broadcasting, who fired all the on-air staff and switched to an oldies format. They moved to a newer facility and shortly after changed the station's famous call letters. The station would change formats and letters again several times until winding up at WJZ, an ESPN affiliate. With the change, WFBR was dead, although the call letters were later resurrected by a small station in Glen Burnie broadcasting at 1590 kHZ. Meanwhile, at some point (I can't find details on when) Equitable Trust floundered and was replaced by a church that operated on the first floor until roughly 2008. After they went under, everything was left to rot.

The building as I entered it in November of 2013 was a dark, disorienting mess. Plants grew out of the stairwell leading up to the radio station, and the walls were a mixture of drooping wallpaper, crumbling drywall exposing the brick underneath, and mold. I began on the second floor in the pitch black heart of the radio station, and worked my way out through a maze of rooms that no longer had any clear indicators of their original use. Ratty orange sectional seats were littered about with dozens of other chairs in one room; in another the ceiling had caved in and sunlight poured in through a hole rimmed by rotten insulation. The door to the bathroom fell apart as I opened it, and the metal panes that had held up the drywall in areas were dangling at eye level, more like rusty spears than anything. As with many abandoned spaces, odd mysteries were presented by the space: why was one hallway filled with piles of fake flowers? Who left the collection of bikes and bike tires in the moldy green room, and why?

The first floor, where the church had once been operating, was less of an enigma and more like something out of a half-forgotten nightmare. No windows meant no light - but it also meant that all the rainwater coming in through the roof over the second floor was trapped. The thin shaft of light from my flashlight never seemed to illuminate enough, and nearly every surface was being consumed by mold. Everything was damp, ceiling tiles had fallen and lay on the floor like filthy sponges, and cheap book cases slouched over onto desks as their veneers warped and the pressed wood beneath melted. While normally I despise using any sort of flash to alter natural lighting, there was no other option here. The strobe flickered for a split second, casting long, harsh shadows across an eerie environment being devoured by toxic fungus, and then left me in the darkness again with no time to process what I had just seen save via the LCD screen on the back of my camera. I am not superstitious, but it's easy for your mind to play tricks on you or misinterpret what you're seeing in such an unnatural place. With your senses on red alert already, any odd sound or moving shadow seems ominous, particularly somewhere that looks like the physical embodiment of an architectural disease. I don't particularly enjoy locations where there is absolutely no light or ones with high mold concentrations, and usually the first leads to the second.

Thankfully the visit was uneventful. I was somewhat disappointed not to find any remnants of the building's days as a theater or car showroom, although perhaps I did but didn't recognize them. The same year that I visited, Jubilee Baltimore acquired the building and began a $19 million project to rehabilitate it. According to their website "[t]he Centre is now home to the film programs of Johns Hopkins University and Maryland Institute College of Art, The Baltimore Jewelry Center, Sparkypants Studios, The Impact Hub and The Center for Neighborhoods, a collaborative work space for nonprofits that serve Baltimore neighborhoods." It's a terrific reuse project that maintains the character of the building's exterior while updating the frankly rather uninspired ruins inside into a contemporary artspace. As with the Lebow Brothers Clothing Company, Baltimore has successfully turned another blighted property into a vibrant part of the community fabric once again without destroying what made them unique. I like blighted properties, but I would definitely consider this a victory.

For more information on Matthew Christopher's Abandoned America's book series visit this info page or Amazon. Photographs and unattributed text by Matthew Christopher. For more images click the thumbnails below.