1970 was a turning point. The Beatle’s said farewell to each other as a group, and it seemed to the sixties and it’s culture. They and many of their generation looked inward, and it became clear that year, with the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin that there was a price to pay for over-indulgence, drugs and alcohol could kill. It was also in 1970, that The Tuerk House, Baltimore’s innovative and ground-breaking alcohol and drug rehabilitation center was officially opened. The center was innovative in that it originated on the wake of 1968 Maryland Legislation that de-criminilazied alcoholism, finally the powers that be officially recognized alcoholism and addiction as a disease rather than just a societal stigma. The center was ground-breaking because it took anyone who walked through the door, regardless of whether they could pay, this model has saved many lives and democratized recovery for the citizens of Baltimore.

For the past three years author Rafael Alvarez and photographer Philip Laubner have been documenting and collecting the history of this life changing, non-profit recovery center from some of it’s creators, it’s current staff and it’s patients, past and present. These interviews and portraits were collected and then published by Otter Bay Books as The Tuerk House. On Tuesday, September 18th, the Pratt Library will host a signing for the book with both the author and the photographer.


Senator Frank Kelly – Photo by Philip Laubner

Apparently, The Tuerk House has come a long way from a rough start. Phil Laubner: “It started out as a dilapidated single row house [that] has now grown – in spite of near bankruptcy, “colorful” early supporters, and the adversity that effects most new ventures – into an accredited four location residential and out-patient [treatment center] for the alcoholics and addicts in Baltimore.”

Laubner makes the distinction, however, that, “Tuerk House isn’t just a place for drunks to dry out and then be released without a plan, without support. They understand that the disease of alcoholism and addiction is complicated and that recovery is a life-long process. Their graduates are part of an integrated peer support system, and their patients are never discharged from Peer Support. Job counseling and placement, parenting classes, these are just a few of the support mechanisms that make the Tuerk House so vital.”


Tuerk House Board member, Lucy Howard - Photo by Philip Laubner

Laubner, who you all know and love as a What Weekly Staff Photographer, is originally from Boston, and most recently New Orleans, moved to Baltimore in 2007. Laubner: “I get bored easily and I crave excitement; so I moved to New Orleans in 2002, I didn’t realize how exciting it was going to get!” After Hurricane Katrina he worked at an under-staffed, full service ad agency; “I wore a bunch of hats including graphic designer and staff photographer.” In 2007 he felt immediately welcomed in Baltimore, “this city has quirky charm, amazing people, and an incredible art scene. I love it,” he said. His photography and writing has been published extensively in our own online magazine, but his work has also appeared in Urbanite, The Baltimore Sun, The City Paper and many other publications.

When asked why he decided to get involved with this book, Laubner replies, “Two words: Rafael Alvarez.” He first heard him read a sad Christmas story on NPR, it was a story, but he refers to it as a “blues”. It was just shortly after he moved to Baltimore, and he was blown away. Laubner: “Its main character was pathetic, but I couldn’t help but feel [Rafael’s] intimacy and warmth for him in spite of his circumstance, Rafael writes prose with soul.”


Rafael Alvarez  - Photo by Philip Laubner

That’s not all he writes…

Rafael Alvarez has worked as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, prior to his career in television, where he worked as a writer and story editor for a little HBO drama you may have heard of called The Wire.  In 2007, and new to Baltimore, Laubner had no idea that Alvarez wrote for The Wire, but after that NPR reading, he was a fan and dreamed of working with him on a project – however unrealistic that thought was at the time. Life is funny and Baltimore has a way of connecting the right people to create incredible things. In 2010, Laubner’s good friend and current Tuerk House board member, Lucy Howard, asked him to contribute photos to a book for the recovery center. Laubner: “When she told me the writer was Rafael Alvarez I was stunned, I couldn’t have planned it, it just happened.”

He was hired to create portraits of the living founders of the center to accompany Rafael’s history. British born, ninety-two year old Wendy Mater was the first portrait Laubner shot for the series. As an ex-nurse and still an avid yoga practitioner, she is described as vibrant. “Wendy didn’t try to be interesting, she couldn’t help it.” He shot the subjects against white backgrounds. “The black and white images are pretty much as shot, with no retouching or photo shop work.” He feels that this “as is” presentation, “preserves the dignity of the subject, underscores the gravity of recovery, and pairs well with the humanity of Rafael’s writing.”


Ex-Nurse Wendy Mater - Photo by Philip Laubner

The creation of the book didn’t come without it’s twists and turns. “Rafael is interested in the story, the whole story,” says Laubner. Oftentimes under the impression that they had wrapped up the book, Rafael would pick up another lead and Philip would get a phone call from him,  “You’re going to kill me, but I need…” Alvarez’s story tells of the founding of the institution and it’s philosophical changes of treatment through the years. Also included is a biography of Dr. Isadore Tuerk, the University of Maryland psychiatrist and alcoholism expert for whom the rehab center is named.

In addition to the book signing, Scott Burkolder, executive director of The Baltimore Love Project, will also have Laubner’s piece: “Love is a verb”,  from the One Love event held at the Creative Alliance last month on display at the signing. Philip created the piece while documenting the subjects for the book. He has always been fascinated with hands, and he asked each person photographed to let him also take a picture of their hands on their heart at the end of each session. Laubner: “We use our hands to write, to build, to perform and to love.”

For more information and the chance to meet this creative match made in Baltimore heaven, please pencil (or finger type) in your calendar the Pratt Central Library, Tuesday, September 18th, 6:30PM.

  • kerry lee mansell

    what a wonderful and worthy project – great portraits!  these are important inspiring stories.