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Built in 1890, Public School No. 32, now better known as home to the Baltimore Montessori School, is a rare historic community school building, one of scores built in the late 19th century to support the city’s rapidly growing population.
Like most school buildings at the time, Public School 32 was designed by the Baltimore Inspector of Buildings J. Theodore Oster, who served in the position from 1884 through 1896. The building shares a number of features that can still be found on old school buildings throughout the city, such as the double stair (one stair for girls and one for boys) along with the tower above. Born in Maryland in 1844, Oster had followed his father, Jacob Oster, to work as a carpenter and draftsman in their firm J. Oster & Son and rose to his position after serving as assistant building inspector in the early 1880s.
Contractor James B. Yeatman broke ground for the new building on Guilford Avenue in Feburary 1890 with the plan to have the building ready for students by the fall. The building had a front of pressed brick with with brown sandstone trim and included six class-rooms, two clock-rooms and a teachers’ room on each floor. 1890 eventually set a new record for the Baltimore public school system with a total of 11 new school buildings completed thanks to the availability of “special funds for the purchase of sites and the erection of school-houses” provided by a building loan to the city of $400,000 in 1888 and 1892.
When the building opened that fall, Catherine S. Thompson became one of the teachers and went on to become the longest serving educator at the school remaining through her retirement as principal in 1926. A graduate of Eastern High School at the southeast corner of Alsquith and Orleans, Thompson began her career in education at the age of 17 in School No. 6 in East Baltimore. Thompson became the head of the school in 1905 and remained there for over 20 years. She lived nearby at 1601 Calvert Street and after her death on December 5, 1937 she was buried in Greenmount Cemetery, just a few blocks east of the school where she worked for years.
When the nearby Benjamin Banneker Elementary School, previously known as Colored School No. 113, closed in the early 1960s with the continued desegregation of the Baltimore City public school system, the school expanded with the addition of a large new building just to the south on Guilford. Designed by the firm of Wheeler, Bonn, Shockey and Associates, the new building was designed to contain, “14 classrooms, 2 kindergartens, 330-seat auditorium, gymnasium, cafeteria, health suite, library, instructional materials center, administrative offices, and utility rooms” at a cost of a $962,000. The school took on the name Mildred Monroe in 1980, to honor a long time custodian at the building and a friend of many students.
After the school closed in 2001, it served as a homeless shelter and then as a location for the fourth season of The Wire on HBO, highlighting the challenges of Baltimore’s public school system. In the past few years, both buildings have taken on new life as the home to the Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School.
Text from Eli Pousson. Cover photo from Eli Pousson via baltimoreheritage.org.