Old warehouse's new life as adjunct to ballpark is a model of creative reuse


August 30, 1992|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

When the Orioles and the Maryland Stadium Authority set out to create an old-fashioned ballpark in Camden Yards, they didn't have to invent history.

It was there all along in the form of the B&O Railroad warehouse, the massive, brooding hulk of a building that dates from the era when Baltimore's western edge was a bustling rail yard -- and Babe Ruth's father had a saloon right down the street.

Looming behind right field, just 460 feet from home plate, the long-as-a-train warehouse rivals Fenway Park's Green Monster as one of the most distinctive features in baseball. More than any other building in the area, it set the tone architecturally for the three-tiered Oriole Park at Camden Yards, lending an air of authenticity and heritage the park wouldn't otherwise have had. With a combined purchase and renovation cost exceeding $30 million, the eight-story warehouse is also one of the most costly

preservation projects ever launched in Baltimore.

In any other year, the completion of such an ambitious renovation would be cause for celebration in itself. In this case, the warehouse's opening was largely upstaged by the ballpark on one side and the light rail line on the other. But for those seeking clues to the architectural success of Baltimore's new ballpark, the decision to preserve the mammoth warehouse was unquestionably one of the most critical, and its contribution doesn't end with its role as a right field backdrop. Inside, it's a national exemplar of adaptive reuse, housing everything from shops and offices to restaurants and banquet rooms. And they've all been created with the same attention to detail and respect for tradition that made the ballpark such a success.

Without the warehouse, the ballpark "would have been completely different," said Janet Marie Smith, the Orioles' vice president for stadium planning and development. "The warehouse is the reference point for everything about the ballpark -- its massing, its scale, its materials."

Natural feature

Described as the longest building on the East Coast, the B&O warehouse is actually six adjoining buildings of brick and stone, measuring 1,016 feet by 51 feet, and containing 430,000 square feet of space.

Designed by the noted firm of Baldwin and Pennington, and possibly others, the complex was built between 1898 and 1905 to house grain and other goods transported by the B&O Railroad, now part of CSX Corp. Last used for freight storage in 1974, the warehouse subsequently housed the railroad's archives. In the early 1980s, about all that came between it and the wrecking ball was the high cost of tearing it down. Its link to the ballpark was forged in December of 1986, when the stadium authority identified Camden Yards as its first choice for a sports complex.

On Feb. 14, 1989, after lengthy studies, the Orioles and stadium authority officials announced their joint decision to retain the warehouse, largely because of their belief that it would help give the ballpark the traditional look and flavor they wanted without adding to the project's cost. "This will not be a cookie-cutter stadium like so many others," vowed club president Larry Lucchino. Incorporating the warehouse "will enhance the quality of the park and give us an old-fashioned feel that we all think is important," he added.

Once the decision was made to save the warehouse, the job of planning the renovations fell to Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum's Sports Facilities Group (HOK), lead architect for the ballpark. Omni Construction Inc. was the general contractor, and Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse completed many of the interior spaces.

HOK has had extensive experience with large-scale preservation projects, such as St. Louis Union Station, but combining an historic warehouse with a ballpark was a new challenge. "We started to think of the warehouse as a natural feature, like a waterfall or a cliff," recalls architect Joseph Spear. "I don't think there's another building in the world like it. The warehouse will make it one of a kind forever. You'll turn on the TV in the third inning and know the game's in Baltimore."

Old and new

As part of the renovation, contractors cleaned and repointed the brick exterior, rebuilt the roof, and installed 898 new windows. They resisted the temptation to enlarge any glass openings, even though that would have improved some views from inside, out of deference to the relentless rhythm of the exterior.

The interior layout was influenced largely by the stadium planners' decision to keep Eutaw Street open as part of the ballpark's main concourse, rather than build the seats up against the warehouse. That 60-foot-wide corridor made the street-level space highly logical for a pub, cafe and souvenir shop.

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