Camden Station, a downtown respite, getting facelift

Jacques Kelly

June 24, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

Poor Camden Station. For far too long, this historic rail terminal has been rotting away in the shadows of a downtown hell bent on new office construction.

The old terminal, once the corporate headquarters of the mighty Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, sits on Camden Street, between Howard and Eutaw, just east of the new ballpark. In case you're not familiar with the area, the station is adjacent to the north end of the massive B&O brick warehouse. It's the building that seems lost and forlorn.

Like many a Baltimorean, I have a strong sentimental attachment to this station. As a child, I felt that it was haunted by the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, who actually used the place during his presidency. Camden Station was all Victorian brickwork, iron columns, oak benches, gates, brass bars, iron radiators, ticket windows and long, quiet platforms. There was nothing modern about it. The locomotives may have been diesel, but it wasn't hard to imagine coal-burners here.

AIt had no classical pretense. It wasn't constructed to resemble a Roman bath, a temple or a hall of the great gods. It was a working, stub-end terminal, where long strings of B&O trains arrived and departed. It was in a sooty end of downtown, but you always got the impression that railroad employees labored long and hard to keep the place clean and respectable.

The station possessed a comfortable, old-hat quality. Into the early 1980s, I used to slip away to the station at lunchtime. Passenger train service here was minimal -- just a few morning and evening commuter trains each day. But the proud, tradition-bound B&O didn't close the station. The benches, counters, wall clocks and platforms were real, in place, operating as they did decades earlier. There was a surviving and fully stocked Union News kiosk there which made milkshakes on a green Hamilton-Beach blender.

The place was so other-era, so non-new Baltimore, I used to flee here just to get a few minutes respite from the Inner Harbor's shopping-center-for-tourists hard sell.

The railroad closed and sealed Camden in the mid-1980s, although commuter trains still call at the basic address, stopping several blocks to the south of the main station building. The Central Light Rail Line, however, promises to pass the station on its Howard Street flank.

As part of the ballpark redevelopment, the stadium authority, which now controls Camden Station, has put out a call for proposals to use the building. Anyone with an idea -- ranging from a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise to a law office -- has several weeks to throw in a proposal.

Meanwhile, the stadium authority is restoring Camden Station to a 19th century architectural appearance. The bricks are to be cleaned and its massive exterior woodwork finery restored. The building was originally designed by architects J. Rudolph

Niernsee and J. Crawford Neilson, with a portion by carpenter Joseph Kemp. The restoration architect is Cho, Wilks and Benn.

The station house dripped with four-foot-high cornices and other examples of finely turned, jig-sawed wood. Much of this has badly deteriorated; the replacement woodwork will be of cast fiberglass, fabricated to match the original.

But the most eye-catching change will be that Camden Statio will get its glorious spires back. The station's roof once supported a candelabra-like set of towers -- a matching pair at the Howard and Eutaw ends of the terminal and a grand central piece of wooden architectural fireworks.

When the main tower was new, about 125 years ago, it was the tallest man-made object in the city -- 185 feet high. Passengers and travelers could look down Howard Street, or Liberty Street, and see this marvelous piece of outlandish construction, outlandish because it served no purpose other than highly visible ornamentation. But then, isn't that the point of any ornament? The big blue Bromo Seltzer bottle, which stood atop the Emerson Drug Co.'s Bromo Seltzer tower, belonged to the same school of self promotion.

And architects Niernsee and Neilson knew how to make a tower. Their towering opus at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, Gibbons Hall, is one of the delights

of North Charles Street.

Camden Station's tower proved structurally unsafe and was lowered. In fact, all three towers were successively trimmed -- like candles that burned down in the course of a party. By the 1950s, all that remained was a candle holder. Indeed, many components of the Camden Station complex have been done away with -- train sheds, platforms, freight rooms and side buildings.

The replacement towers will be of painted cast aluminum, wit new strong foundations. Their return will give some indication of the station's role in its glory years from the 1850s through the Second World War.

Oddly enough, even though the B&O built another expensive towered station in Baltimore (Mount Royal Station, now a Maryland Institute College of Art building at Mount Royal Avenue and Cathedral Street), it never found favor with Baltimoreans. Mount Royal was the far more deluxe station, but Baltimoreans preferred to use homey old Camden. By comparison, Mount Royal was a slow-paced rest home.

So, in the next year or so, Camden Station should come into its own. It's been in hiding for too long. And, in Baltimore, always of city of towers, domes, spires, minarets, flagpoles and weather vanes, it should be right at home.

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