Our best office address

Baltimore Glimpses

November 24, 1992|By Mike Bowler and Gilbert Sandler

YOU can talk all you want about USF&G, those swanky new office buildings along Pratt and Lombard and other structures of note: Baltimore's premier office address remains One Charles Center.

Designed principally by the world-famous architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the building at 100 N. Charles St. is 30 years old this year and undergoing a renovation designed to keep it competitive in the glutted, recession-plagued downtown office market.

But on the outside One Charles Center has passed the test of time. It looks, in fact, as though it had been built last year instead of in the early 1960s.

One Charles Center has two distinctions: Except for the the nearby Commercial Credit building, it was the first major downtown office structure in 30 years. And it kicked off the urban renaissance that made Baltimore internationally famous starting a quarter-century ago.

But when the building was under construction, there was little mention of it, even of the race to completion between One Charles Center and the Blaustein Building, arising across the street and a few doors to the south.

The story began, actually, Jan. 5, 1961, when 1,000 people gathered for the razing of O'Neill's department store. A 100-foot crane stood tall at the curb, wrecking ball dangling menacingly only a few feet from the north wall of O'Neill's. About 11:15, the Glenelg High School band, in from Howard County, struck up a rousing chorus of "Baltimore Our Baltimore." Mayor J. Harold Grady was seated in the crane cab. Passersby, some of them annoyed at the inconvenience, made their way around the tiny speaker's platform,

The band finished "Baltimore Our Baltimore," then rendered a drum roll. The crane operator, Andrew Hawthorne, took over for Grady. Seconds later, the wrecker's ball smashed into O'Neill's, sending a shower of bricks and plaster and wooden splinters over Charles Street. It was an auspicious beginning of Charles Center and all that was to follow.

Down would come O'Neill's, the Century, the Valencia, Miller Brothers restaurant, the old Sun Building at Sun Square. In their stead, over the next few years, would rise the new, gleaming downtown, with its office buildings and theaters and promenades and plazas and fountains. Harborplace and other development along the harbor would follow.

Walter Sondheim, now senior adviser to the Greater Baltimore Committee and at the time chairman of Urban Renewal and Housing Commission, was there that January morning in 1961; he made a speech he says was forgettable. But what he has not forgotten, and remembers to this day, was the feeling of "disbelief" that he and his colleagues had that morning. "We couldn't believe, after so much planning and agonizing and backing and filling, that at long last here we were. When that O'Neill's wall came down, Charles Center would actually begin to take shape -- and against some resistance. Some of the merchants were quite worried what the demolition would do to their businesses. The day before I'd met with the shoe wholesalers who were upset, and with the owners of the old Hamburger's building at Baltimore and Hanover. We eventually got them satisfied, but it was long, hard work.

"To us, that morning, that we were there at all, that it was happening, was unbelievable!"

Today, One Charles Center is getting a new limestone floor in its lobby and refinished marble walls. Upstairs, there will be new floors and upgraded bathrooms. Keeping the building competitive won't be easy. Its current tenant, CSX Corp., is moving out of a third of One Charles Center's 300,000 square feet. Office space closer to the Inner Harbor may be more in demand in the '90s.

But One Charles Center, which last month won the "25 Year Award" from the American Institute of Architects, has always lent a touch of class to downtown.

Glimpses has high hopes for its continuing success.

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