Architects included new concepts in Fells Point pharmacy renovation


October 06, 1991|By Edward Gunts

The whole time Roxanne L. Williams and J. Lee Glenn were renovating the building at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Ann Street in Fells Point, curious neighbors kept coming up and asking what they were planning to open.

"They would say, 'Is it going to be a bakery?' " Ms. Williams recalled the other day. " 'This area sure needs a bakery. Hope you have lower prices than Broadway Market.' "

Such expectations were understandable. For most of this century, the three-story structure was the home of Ollie's Pharmacy, an old-fashioned apothecary shop and soda fountain named after owner "Ollie" Oleszczuk, who retired to Florida two years ago. Located in a transitional block between the Fells Point waterfront and less-gentrified neighborhoods to the north, it would have been a prime spot for an upscale restaurant, perhaps, or a trendy tavern or retail establishment.

But Ms. Williams and Mr. Glenn, husband-and-wife designers who head Glenn Williams Architects Inc., have bad news for those on the prowl for an inexpensive bakery: All they plan to do is live there.

Although the 100-year-old building still looks from the outside as if it's on the way to becoming something else, the conversion is already complete. When they moved in late last month, Ms. Williams and Mr. Glenn embarked on what may be the start of a new residential tradition: They're not just living above the shop. They're living in it.


This is not a typical Baltimore renovation, in which the memory of the former owner is painstakingly preserved and enshrined by the new one. It couldn't be. The old soda fountain and fixtures were sold to a local antiques dealer after Ollie's closed, and the crew of "He Said, She Said" briefly turned the first level into a movie-set deli when that film was shot in town, leaving little for the new owners to preserve. The upper levels contained two apartments, which didn't have much worth saving.

Instead, a visitor today would see that the front room that contained Ollie's soda fountain has been converted to a spacious entrance foyer and dining room, complete with a stainless steel dining table and lush indoor garden. Walls and doors have been removed, and a new central stair now leads to upper-level spaces that flow from one to another. White tile corridors, multicolored window panes and a gessolike wall surface are further signs of the extent to which the new owners altered the building, in the process creating display spaces for everything from spun aluminum tableware to 25-year-old lava lamps. If Ollie returned to visit, the only room he would probably recognize is the cabinet-lined workshop where the prescriptions and ointments and other pharmaceutical concoctions were mixed; it turned out to be perfect for the kitchen.

This is not really all that lighthearted a project, either, even though the designers' sense of humor is evident throughout. As conceived by Ms. Williams, 37, and Mr. Glenn, 38, the transformation is architecture with a capital A, a serious and spirited search for a new kind of "characterful" modernism. The result is a highly individualistic statement that reflects the owners' personalities while showcasing the work of a multitude of local craftspeople. It is also part of a trend in which many young architects are focusing on a more honest and expressive use of building materials and construction techniques as a way to define and enliven living spaces.

Ms. Williams and Mr. Glenn moved from a town house in Canton, in part because they wanted to design a space for themselves.

In a sense, their house is shaped nearly as much by what they didn't want as by what they did want.

According to Mr. Glenn, the building had to be gutted so contractors could put in new mechanical systems. In rebuilding the structure, he said, he and Ms. Williams didn't just want to re-create the spaces that were there before. They also weren't willing to settle for amorphous "loft" spaces defined primarily by the building's shell.

"We think that there's just not enough spatial definition [in a loft] for it to be emotionally satisfying," he said. Educated in the early 1970s at the University of Tennessee, where they first met, Ms. Williams and Mr. Glenn also are no fans of postmodernism, the 1980s design movement that involves reviving bygone architectural styles, often in whimsical ways.

"Postmodernism had a visual appeal, but it didn't have a lot of substance," Mr. Glenn said. "When you have to do classical detailing out of plywood and other cheap materials, why bother?"

They also didn't feel comfortable taking a purely less-is-more approach, as with the minimalist, all-white rooms made famous more than a decade ago by architects such as Richard Meier and Hugh Newell Jacobsen.

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