Warehouse transformed in Mount Washington


January 07, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Given the many handsome buildings that developer Sam Himmelrich has ready to recycle at the old Mount Washington Mill -- the dye house, forge building, power station and gray stone mill itself -- it seems a shame he had to start with the most nondescript.

Then again, seeing the way he transformed a one-story metal shed into high-tech medical offices makes one all the more curious to find out what he'll do next.

Over the past six months, the 38-year-old developer has pulled off a feat of urban alchemy worthy of a magician. The end result, which will be dedicated during an open house Sunday at 3 p.m., shows there is hope for outmoded industrial properties such as the Mount Washington Mill, which dates from 1808 and is Maryland's oldest surviving cotton mill.

The Byrne Building is a blue metal warehouse built in the 1970s to store nuts and bolts made by a previous owner. It stands on the western edge of the 5-acre mill property, in the 1300 block of Smith Ave.

Mr. Himmelrich, head of a group that bought the mill three years ago, recycled the warehouse first because he had no choice. In the current economic climate, he explained, lenders will provide BTC funds only to build or renovate commercial properties for which there are definite tenants, and a tenant emerged for the small building first.

That tenant was Renal Treatment Centers Inc., a Pennsylvania-based concern that filters the blood of patients with defective kidneys. Its Northwest Baltimore operation had been in the basement of Sinai Hospital, and the owners wanted to expand to their own state-of-the-art center. The Byrne Building was the right size and location, but it needed a major overhaul.

Enter Werner Mueller of Atelier Three, architect for the mill conversion. He suggested removing the warehouse's corrugated steel exterior and "reskinning" it with masonry blocks that pick up the color of the four-story mill nearby.

He also raised the floor so all occupied areas are above the flood plain and designed a bright, airy, column-free clinic for the patients, who typically come in three times a week.

Inside the clinic, patients are seated in reclining chairs and attached to one of 16 kidney dialysis machines around the room. While undergoing treatment, which lasts three hours, they can see and talk to each other, read, or look through the large windows to the wooded setting beyond. The common space is meant to foster a sense of camaraderie among the patients while enabling attendants to monitor each one from a central nurse's station.

Renal Treatment also wanted the exterior to convey an attractive, corporate image. Mr. Mueller achieved that with the variegated exterior, which he created by alternating smooth-faced block and split-faced block in multiple shades of gray.

The clean lines and rough surfaces combine to create a stylized grittiness, a sophisticated utilitarianism that seems well suited to the frugal 1990s. It says patients aren't paying for opulent surroundings, yet they're in an orderly, well-planned facility. Reusing the building's steel frame helped keep the construction cost to about $300,000.

Himmelrich Associates is also recycling Meadow Mill at Woodberry, the old London Fog raincoat factory, which gained a string of tenants in 1992. But 1993 could well be the year Mount Washington Mill takes off. If the Byrne Building has the right look for the '90s, the entire project has the right economic approach -- cost-efficient, served by mass transit, able to be carried out in phases.

It must be frustrating for a developer to have so many wonderful buildings to recycle and then be forced to wait for tenants before starting construction. But if those are the rules of the development game in the 1990s, Sam Himmelrich is making the most of it. If he can accomplish what he did with an old blue warehouse, imagine what he can do with the rest of the property.

Symbol of growth opens in Mount Airy

After 18 months of construction, the Mount Airy Library and Senior Center will open tomorrow at 3 p.m. at 703-705 Ridge Ave. Designed by Cho, Wilks & Benn of Baltimore, the $3 million project replaces a one-room library on Main Street. It is a sign of Mount Airy's transformation from a rural town to a thriving bedroom community of Baltimore and Washington.

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