If you’ve ever driven down Monroe Street to Washington Boulevard, you’ve seen this forlorn building next to the bridge:

611-661 S Monroe Street
611-661 S Monroe Street

The brick wall is crumbing, and the building has been in disrepair for years.  On first glance, it appears to be just another one of Baltimore’s many vacant properties, left to rot over the decades.  However, a little research shows this isn’t just any property — it has historic significance, ties to a famous local family, and deserves to be recognized and celebrated.

History

The building was built in the late 19th century, as the headquarters and manufacturing center for the Alma Manufacturing Company, the first company in the United States to make steel buttons and fasteners for clothing.  The company held several patents for their work, among them No. 963,193 and No. 934,136, for buckles.

On the property were long, low mill and multi-story and high-ceiling manufacturing buildings, situated near the rail tracks.

Former site of the Alma Manufacturing Company
Former site of the Alma Manufacturing Company, as seen from S Monroe Street
Alma Manufacturing signage still remains on one of the buildings next to the rail tracks
Alma Manufacturing signage still remains on one of the buildings next to the rail tracks

The Alma Manufacturing company was founded by a German immigrant, Herman Kerngood, in 1887. At the beginning of the 20th century, Herman Kerngood formed a partnership with Moses Hecht, Benjamin F. Hecht, Nathan I. Hecht, S.B. Sonneborn, and Isaac Blum, to establish the American Steel Buckle Company, Inc. with an authorized capital stock of $1000.  The Hechts were of the same family that started Hecht Brothers and the Hecht Company chain of department stores in the Baltimore-Washington region, starting with a used furniture store founded by Samuel Hecht, in 1857.

The company was taken over by Herman’s sons after his death, and then sold to another manufacturing company in 1946.

Source:  Maryland Historical Trust, Inventory of Historic Properties
Source:  Industrial Development and Manufacturer’s Record, July 20, 1905
Source:  Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, Volume CLVI, July 1910
Source:  Baltimore Sun, August 2010 “Shopping in Fells Point at Hecht’s Reliable Store” by Jacques Kelly
Source:  Baltimore Heritage: Hecht-May Company
Recent Years

Sometime around 1983, the complex was purchased by one Mahendra “Mike” Shah, who named the industrial center “Shah Industrial Park”.  One of its tenants at that time was the Naron Candy Company.

611-661 S Monroe Street, 1983 (Photo from the Maryland Historical Trust)
611-661 S Monroe Street, 1983 (Photo from the Maryland Historical Trust)

In 1996, the complex burned to the ground in one of the worst fires in SW Baltimore.  It was later determined by the court that Shah had committed numerous counts of insurance fraud, arson, mail and wire fraud violations, and money laundering.  He was subsequently sentenced to 15 years in prison, in 2004.  In 2006, Shah sought to overturn his conviction, but the US Court of Appeals, 4th Circuit, denied his appeal.

Currently, the property is owned by a graphic artist and his wife, having purchased the property in 2009.  I reached out to them twice to find out what they intend to do with the property — once two weeks ago, and then again this morning.  Hopefully they’ll respond.  It’s a terrible shame to see such an important property fall into an even greater state of disrepair.

Larger view of an original Alma Manufacturing building
Larger view of an original Alma Manufacturing building
View of the complex from the rail tracks
View of the complex from the rail tracks