When God said "Let there be light," he must have been thinking of American consumers. We drink "lite" beer, eat "lite" foods, smoke "lite" cigarettes and listen to "lite" music on the radio. Is it any wonder, then, that we're also beginning to surround ourselves with "lite" architecture?
Nowhere in Baltimore is this trend more evident than at Waterloo Place, the 196-unit apartment complex completed this fall in the Mount Vernon historic district. The $18.6 million project took shape in the block once occupied by architect Robert Mills' famous Waterloo Row town houses, which were razed in 1970, and the development team promised from the beginning to reflect the character of the historic neighborhood in its replacement.
At the same time the developers, David Tufaro and his associates at Summit Properties, needed to devise an economically viable project that would make full use of the two-acre site bounded by Calvert, Monument, St. Paul and Centre streets. The result was one of the few residential success stories of 1991 in Baltimore, with 60 percent of the apartments leased in the first eight months -- a surprisingly healthy figure during a recession.
The secret to the developers' success is that, like all clever merchandisers, they gave consumers a choice: the grand if somewhat dilapidated 19th century town houses already on Mount Vernon Place, or the new, improved 20th century facsimile, "Mount Vernon Lite." What they came up with is not so much a reflection of history as a Cliff's Notes version of it -- and renters are going for it.
Waterloo Place is worth more than a passing glance precisely because the approach has been so well received by the market. More than any other project completed this year, it demonstrates that it is possible to develop residential projects with limited resources during tough economic times. But it also shows how difficult it can be to construct good buildings in a bad economy, even when designers have the best of intentions.
Breaking the jinx
The most miraculous aspect of Waterloo Place is that it got built at all. This is the site that sat vacant (some would say jinxed) for nearly 20 years, foiling at least three previous developers. Summit's strategy was to cater not just to the top end of the market but the larger pool of middle-income renters as well. It also came up with an innovative way to arrange the apartments on the site. Instead of building garden apartments with parking all around, Summit put all the parking underground, creating a platform. Then it used that platform to support four levels of housing, clustered around a series of midblock courtyards. It was a new way to bring the comfort and convenience of suburban apartments right into the heart of the city.
The job of making it all fit into historic Mount Vernon fell to David Furman/Architecture of Charlotte, N.C., a multifamily housing specialist who worked with Gantt Huberman Architects of Charlotte. Mr. Furman's approach was to design the shell of the garage and apartments so they could be put up as cost efficiently as possible, using a combination of concrete, steel and timber construction methods. Then he clad it all with architectural garb tailored to evoke the past, without relying on the thick stone walls and old-fashioned craftsmanship that can be so expensive. The key was using lighter, thinner construction materials, such as precast ornamentation and synthetic stucco walls. As an approach to building "lite," it had
merit. But the execution left much to to be desired.
The first sign of trouble is on the outside facades. The St. Paul Street side has stepped gables, arches, a row of trees and a pleasingly repetitive pattern, evoking Baltimore's old row houses. But on the other three sides, that studied rhythm begins to fall apart. Facades are no longer mostly brick above a rusticated base, but a combination of brick and stucco walls. Brick-faced bays and balconies hang over white walls with no visible means of support. Columns pop up here and there, lacking any consistent logic. The Centre and Monument street sides in particular are riots of bumps and grinds and zigzags and circles, a staccato blending of mismatched elements and jarringly discordant bands of light and dark, all thrown together with an air of improvisation.
And that's not to mention the grand arched entrances that visitors can't get in without a key, the bathrooms with toilets right in front of large bay windows, the giant ornamental brackets above Calvert Street. It's a veritable theme park of instant history, including some really loopy stuff.