Where the Landmarks are a Church and a Water Tower with 24 Pillars

September 01, 1991|By RAFAEL ALVAREZ

Issac Bashevis Singer, the great storyteller, said: "God gave us so many emotions and such strong ones. Every human being, even if he is an idiot, is a millionaire in emotions."

I spent a good ten or twenty grand of my emotional bankroll the first time I saw the Curtis Bay water tank high atop Baltimore and the harbor channel that gives the peninsula neighborhood its name.

And every time I return to the corner of Prudence and Filbert Streets to stand in its magnificent shadow I drop another piece of change.

Not even an idiot could look at this strange and fantastic landmark, one of the most powerful icons in a city peppered with them, and not react to it.

"It has a major presence all to itself," said a woman who paints the streetscapes of Baltimore for a living. "It looks like it landed here from another planet." It landed in Curtis Bay, old waterfront dairy land and strawberry fields turned to heavy industry, from the mind of Frank O. Heyder in 1930.

The principal draftsman for the Bureau of Plans and Surveys through the middle of the century, Mr. Heyder lived in an Elmley Avenue rowhouse near Herring Run Park that was crowded with 3,500 books on the architecture of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

Newspaper stories from the early 1930s describe Mr. Heyder as a man "fascinated by cathedrals and domes and complicated structures," and it was this fascination and $44,989 in public money that saw the tank erected between 1931 and 1932.

A squat and simple tank made of iron was already on the hill, having replaced a large black water tower built in 1893 by the Monarch Engineering Company, and what Mr. Heyder designed for the city was a masonry skirt to adorn it.

The skirt is made of colored gravel mixed with poured and highly polished concrete that appears as a blue-gray granite. Above this base is dark brown brick and above that run sections of hand-picked bricks that change color 20 times before fading to light tan at the top, where they are laid in herring bone fashion. A series of 24 pillars and 24 panels runs around the building with the wall color reversed inside of the panels.

"The first time I saw it, I thought it was a synogogue," said Brendan T. Carr, the neighborhood priest.

Frank Heyder also experimented with the terra cotta cornice, whose original clay brown was fired with other colors.

"Neither the coloring in the base or the cornice has ever been tried before," said Mr. Heyder, who died March 18, 1973.

His experiments were carried out splendidly by bricklayers working for the Mullan Construction Company, although two young workers, Otto Polo and Ricco Grosso, lost their lives in falls from the tank 16 days apart in February of 1932.

When the work was done a few months later, Frank Heyder's vision for the high hill over Stonehouse Cove was called "the most beautiful structure ever built under supervision of the Public Improvement Commission."

But the old Polish woman who trudges up Filbert Street just before 7 o'clock every morning doesn't pay it much mind as she crosses in front of it.

Like most of the folks who live near the tank, she wishes the city would paint the rusting iron dome, but it's a minor concern as she makes her way to a more significant landmark just south of the tank: St. Athanasius Roman Catholic Church, now in its 100th year, where Brendan Carr is the first non-Polish pastor since 1895. A small woman with a kind face and strong memories of hard work and good fun, she doesn't want to give her name. Except for a brief stay in Highlandtown, all of her 85 years have been passed in Curtis Bay.

The neighborhood was once a stronghold of Baltimore's Polish community rivaling Canton, and it remains the hilltop residence of the Polish Home Hall, a big brick house famous for polka-driven wedding receptions and oyster roasts.

Curtis Bay is now a community made up of various ethnic groups, but in the first decades of the century it was thick with families fresh from Poland as the old woman's was.

"It was all Polish through the early Fifties," said a woman from Kentucky whose front door faces the water tank. "When I moved here in 1952, I was a foreigner."

The old Polish woman makes the steep walk up Filbert Street from her home on Fairhaven Avenue every day and twice on Sunday for Mass at the parish where she was baptized and celebrated the sacraments of First Communion, Confirmation and Holy Matrimony; the church from which her husband was buried five years and ten days after her marriage in 1925.

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