Baltimore's look has gone back 'retro'

URBAN LANDSCAPE

December 31, 1992|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Who says nostalgia is a dead end?

That's the question Time magazine asked this week when it named Oriole Park at Camden Yards one of the 10 best designs of 1992. (It was No. 5.) The citation is the latest kudos that has come to downtown's "retropark" since its opening in April.

But Time's editors could have asked the same question about any one of several local redevelopment projects that took shape this year, given the old-fashioned air that pervaded them.

Without question, this was the year Baltimore went back to the future, in more ways than one. While one may bemoan the absence of a more progressive design vision, at least these memory-triggering projects provided signs of life downtown during the worst economic downturn since the Depression.

The tone was set by Oriole Park, which was designed to combine the character and quirkiness of classic baseball shrines from the past with the modern amenities fans have come to expect in the 1990s.

Commerce Place, the 30-story office tower at Baltimore and South streets, has a profile reminiscent of office buildings of the 1920s and 1930s. One Hundred HarborView Drive, the 28-story condominium tower near Federal Hill, seems to be a throwback to apartment houses from the same era. The state's light rail system recalls a time when trolley cars crisscrossed city streets.

Images of the past also came from a flurry of restoration and renovation activity that brought new life to such dormant landmarks as the Orchard Street Church, Camden Station, B&O Warehouse, Hansa Haus and Washington Monument.

Another round of renovations will result from recent Schmoke administration decisions, including: buying the Brokerage at the Inner Harbor complex and opening a Children's Museum there, moving police headquarters into the former Hecht Co. store on Howard Street, and allowing a local group to convert the Pier 4 Power Plant to a sports museum and entertainment center.

Other notable construction projects completed in 1992 include: the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center, Legal Aid Bureau headquarters near City Hall, Towson Commons and Nordstrom's.

Bohagers' Bar & Grill drew Towsonites to the industrial no-man's land between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point.

Major projects for which construction began included: the Christopher Columbus Center of Marine Research and Exploration, City Crescent office building, a western wing of the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Homer Gudelsky patient tower at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Hopkins announced plans for a $120 million cancer center, and the Health Care Financing Administration chose Woodlawn as the site for its new headquarters.

The news was less than upbeat for those in the design and construction trades who were laid off due to lack of work. One of the saddest losses was the demise of Edmunds & Hyde, an architectural firm that dated from the 1880s.

Saddled with vacant buildings, property owners increasingly sought permission to tear them down, prompting fears among preservationists that the downtown streetscape would be riddled with gaping holes.

The recent lull in construction activity means few major buildingswill open in 1993, and civic boosters will have to find other ways to maintain the impression that Baltimore is on the move. Fortunately, they'll have the 1993 All-Star Game to tout. It will be preceded by Fanfest, a weeklong festival that will transform the Convention Center to a baseball theme park expected to attract 70,000 people.

Who says nostalgia is a dead end? Certainly not Baltimore, which seems to have the nostalgia market cornered. At some point, though, the city will have to add more to its bag of tricks. Will it be life sciences, sports, virtual reality?

The never-ending search for the next hot urban trend should give Baltimore's visionaries plenty to think about as they head into 1993.

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