Five years ago, a Johns Hopkins University trustee committee recommended that the late-1920s apartment house known as Wolman Hall be demolished to make way for a larger, more modern residential complex for undergraduates.
But this summer, the seven-story building at 3339 N. Charles St. reopened after a $15 million renovation, the centerpiece of a $33.5 million, four-building renovation project launched to improve living conditions for Hopkins students. At its base is a new dining hall and outdoor cafe that will add life to Charles Street from early morning until late at night.
Hopkins' refurbishment of Wolman and three neighboring buildings represents a significant preservation achievement for Baltimore. All told, the project is one of the largest and most expensive undertakings of its kind in the city, comparable in scope to the renovation of the B&O Warehouse in Camden Yards. It is a welcome sign of pragmatism on the part of Hopkins and level-headedness on the part of city planners and community leaders.
And it is no small tribute to the special brand of architectural alchemy practiced by Frank Gant Architects, a seven-member Baltimore firm that is rapidly becoming one of the premier experts not just at saving old buildings but making them better than they ever were before. Working with Knott Development Co., Mr. Gant's firm pulled off nothing less than an urban miracle, prescribing a way to save a part of vintage Baltimore that might have been wiped off the map.
"This is one of the few urban neighborhoods in the country that has not been touched by modern architecture or 1960s-style urban renewal," Mr. Gant said on a recent tour of the area. "It still looks essentially the same as it did in the 1930s. If the folks who wanted to tear it down had their way, Charles Village would have been damaged significantly."
Mr. Gant and his associates -- project manager Mark Hirth and interiors architect Pamela Bolstad-Blom -- became involved with the Hopkins buildings shortly after an ad hoc trustee committee recommended that they be demolished. In addition to Wolman Hall, the trustees were willing to part with McCoy Hall at 3401 N. Charles St.
Built more than 60 years ago as commercial apartments, both were acquired by Hopkins in the 1960s for student housing and proved adequate for many years in supplementing the freshman dorms on the school's Homewood campus. But as the undergraduate population grew and more parents wanted students to stay in university-owned housing after freshman year, the apartment buildings, still in their original configuration, were insufficient to house them all. Members of the trustee committee believed that to keep Hopkins competitive, the university should tear them down and start over again.
But some officials were not convinced that the buildings couldn't be salvaged. One was Robert Schuerholz, executive director of facilities management for Hopkins. In 1987, he hired the joint venture of Mr. Gant's firm and Knott Development Co., which proposed to save both buildings and increase the number of students housed there from 500 to 1,000. They subsequently were hired to renovate Bradford Hall at 3301 St. Paul St., which opened last year, and Ivy Hall at 10-12 E. 33rd St., which also opened this summer.
In each case, the architect's challenge was to reorganize the buildings internally so more residents could be housed comfortably, with rental income from the additional residents helping pay for the cost of the improvements. Increasing the project's difficulty was that these buildings were no gems, but Plain Jane commercial structures put up quickly and on the cheap. At the same time, they have a sense of age and tradition that suit Baltimore and Hopkins, and they form a coherent urban ensemble that helps anchor upper Charles Village.
Given these constraints, Mr. Gant was a particularly good choice for this project. Plenty of restoration architects look good when they have decent buildings to work with, such as City Hall or Pennsylvania Station. Mr. Gant's special genius is that he can take a less than stellar building, even one ready for the wrecking ball, and make it look and work better than it did on opening day.
Past examples of his work include the conversions of the apartment house at 101 W. Monument St. to the Peabody Court Hotel, the Mount Royal Hotel to the International House apartments (also for Hopkins) and the former Seton High School to the headquarters of the Prudential Health Plan. His signature is the dazzling entrance, the dramatic night lighting, the dynamite paint job and other touches that turn a borderline building into a memorable place, without being too extravagant.
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