The historic building will get return ticket to 1867 appearance REBIRTH AT CAMDEN STATION

April 14, 1991|By Edward Gunts

By now just about everyone knows about the traditional old-fashioned ballpark that the Maryland Stadium Authority is building to replace Memorial Stadium, and how much praise the planners have received for bucking the national trend toward larger and less intimate "megastadiums."

With Opening Day at Camden Yards now less than a year off, stadium planners are about to embark on another risk-taking project that could yield equally dramatic results: They have decided that it's not enough just to fix up Camden Station, the historic train depot from which Camden Yards draws its name. Instead, they want to take it back to the way it appeared in 1867 -- complete with a 185-foot clock tower above the central section and three-story cupola-topped towers, each 80 feet tall, over the east and west wings. From Camden Street, Baltimore's born-again train station will look exactly as it did 125 years ago, when it was the largest in the world.

The decision to launch such an elaborate restoration has not been without controversy. At a time when the state has a massive budget deficit and local companies are announcing hundreds of layoffs, one member of a city design review panel asked at a recent meeting, is it right for a state agency to be putting cupolas and clock towers back on an old train station?

"It's a folly," said Architectural Review Board member Phoebe B. Stanton. "I think we have to be discriminating about things like this. . . . I don't see any point spending public monies to restore something that wasn't very good in the beginning, and I'm usually the person who wants to save everything."

The Maryland Historical Trust, although it has signed off on the current plan, would have been perfectly satisfied with a more modest approach, according to Bill Pencek, chief of the office of preservation services. Strictly speaking, he said, any project that attempts to replicate lost elements is not in accordance with federal guidelines, which stress preservation of what remains rather than re-creating what used to be.

Could this be? A local project that is questioned by preservationists for going too far in the direction of historical restoration? To be sure, monitoring expenses is important for all public projects, particularly one as large as Baltimore's $105 million stadium. But in this case there are overriding factors that not only justify the expenditure for a full-blown restoration but practically make it imperative. In many ways, it would be a mistake if the state did anything less.

* Built starting in 1853 but not completed until 1865, Camden Station is more significant for historical reasons than for its architectural merit. It was the principal terminal of America's first commercial railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio, and for years was Baltimore's busiest depot. Along with President Street Station, it was one of the points where Union soldiers in 1861 were attacked by Confederate sympathizers, resulting in the first combat casualties of the Civil War. After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, his funeral train stopped there on its journey back to Springfield, Ill. Today, sadly, it is used only as a boarding point for passengers of the MARC commuter train line, and both the interior and exterior are in advanced states of disrepair.

The original building was far more impressive than the one people see today. Two former engineers for the B&O, John Randolph Neirnsee and J. Crawford Nielson, designed it along the lines of a wingspread Italian villa, with a central portion and east and west towers that made an impressive grouping. To top off the center section they designed a three-tiered Georgian-style clock tower with a bell to announce train arrivals. That central tower made the station the tallest building in Baltimore and, for a while, the largest train station in the world. The tower didn't survive very long, though; by 1867 cracks were discovered and its top two levels were removed for safety reasons and replaced with a more modest cupola. By 1952, the second cupola was gone too, along with both of the side cupolas.

Exact plans for the station's reuse have not been determined by the stadium authority, which intends to solicit proposals from developers later this year and rent the building to the group that submits the best bid. The Orioles already have expressed interest in creating a baseball-oriented attraction, including an Orioles Hall of Fame, a Maryland Sports Hall of Fame and exhibit dedicated to old ballparks. Stadium authority executive director Bruce Hoffman said his agency decided to go ahead with the restoration work this spring so the exterior will be presentable when the stadium opens next year.

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