Capt. Emerson's tower stars in ballpark setting

Jacques Kelly

August 24, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

Precisely 81 years ago tonight, a series of electric letters appeared in the heavens. They spelled out BROMO SELTZER.

The light was a huge revolving sign made up of 314 bulbs high atop the Emerson Drug Co.'s tower and headquarters at Lombard and Eutaw streets. People reported seeing the nocturnal light on the Eastern Shore, at Tolchester and Love Point.

Move ahead to the summer of 1992. Watch an Oriole game on television this year, and one of the stars of the screen has become that 1911 Bromo-Seltzer Tower. It remains one of Baltimore's greatest popular landmarks.

A curious attraction from the day it was built, the tower has come into its own once again, thanks to the television camera and its proximity to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. One day last month a film crew for the CBS Game of the Week seemed so fascinated by the big old clock, its face and hands, that the clock seemed to be on the air longer than did some of the ads for shaving soap, beer and deodorant.

Since the Orioles moved downtown, the number of tourists who knock on the tower door (locked on weekends) has increased significantly. Edmund Lonesome, a city security guard at what is now the city-owned Baltimore Arts Tower, says about 10 people a day drop by its lobby most weekdays and want to visit the tower pinnacle, which is never open for tours of any kind.

Capt. Isaac Emerson, who held the patent on Bromo-Seltzer, the hangover/upset stomach remedy, was the genius behind the place. His Baltimore skyscraper, once the tallest in the city, was second to none as an advertisement for his fizzy concoction, which was named after Mount Bromo, a volcano in Java, near the Straits of Sunda.

The captain was a pharmacist who earned a fortune from his heavily promoted Bromo-Seltzer. His Emerson Drug Co. plant was in a building that stretched around the northeast corner of Lombard and Eutaw. The Emerson Tower stood at the corner and appeared to be part of that building. In 1969, the plant was torn down, replaced by the John F. Steadman Fire House. The tower now mainly is used by the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture.

Captain Emerson, who acquired his naval status while using his yacht to defend this country during the Spanish-American War, realized the publicity value of tall buildings, which then often were attached to the names of famous corporations -- Woolworth and Singer, for example. After his return here from a trip to Europe, Emerson, who never shrank from having his name in lights, ordered Baltimore architect Joseph Sperry to copy the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy, in steel and brick. The designer complied. The tower went up in less than a year. By June 23, 1911, it was completed -- three-quarters of a million bricks of a curious yellow color, accented by blue tints sprinkled with brown. The same brick type had been used in the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The Seth Thomas Clock Co. of Thomaston, Conn., produced a clockworks for the four-sided clock. The dial is 24 feet in diameter; the minute hand, more than 12 feet; the hour hand, nearly 10. The movement, once driven completely by weights, later was electrified. However, its old (unused) pendulum remains. The clock's faces are translucent white glass, with Roman numerals, and just so people won't forget, there are also 12 letters B-R-O-M-O S-E-L-T-Z-E-R on the face. City building caretakers keep the dials lighted with mercury lamps.

The captain's biggest advertising coup was the 30-ton enlargement of a Bromo-Seltzer bottle he had erected in metal at the top of the tower. The BROMO SELTZER lights were turned on the night of Aug. 24, 1911. A small motor made the bottle spin one revolution every 30 seconds. The bottle lasted until 1936, when it was dismantled and scrapped.

The Emerson Tower, as it was once named, served as a commercial office building. Its 14 floors held many local businesses, including one on the sixth floor occupied by the Cone Export and Commission Co., a cotton firm owned by the family of the famous art-acquiring Cone sisters. The layout of the offices war odd. The building's floor plan is not large. Three offices, a stairwell and an elevator shaft fit within the confines of the tower. More than a third of the tower was totally unusable space -- the top section with the clock, the parapet and the bottle.

Captain Emerson intended the tower, the clock and bottle to promote his remedy. It never had an observation deck.

The captain did open his aerie for sightseeing guests on one occasion, during Baltimore's last national presidential nominating convention, when the Democrats converged here in 1912.

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