If you’ve ever driven down Monroe Street to Washington Boulevard, you’ve seen this forlorn building next to the bridge:
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.
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.
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: Baltimore Sun, August 2010 “Shopping in Fells Point at Hecht’s Reliable Store” by Jacques Kelly
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.
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.