Face lift proposed for warehouse Bold steps planned for make-over on Lombard Street

ARCHITECTURE REVIEW

January 31, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

When Gov. William Donald Schaefer and his aides bought the old Hutzler Bros. warehouse on Lombard Street several years ago, they had no specific use in mind other than to help the University of Maryland expand its downtown Baltimore campus. On the surface, they seemed to be helping Baltimore more than the university.

For a city in need of revitalization, after all, the state's warehouse acquisition meant one less abandoned building to worry about. But what were state educators going to do with a dying department store chain's 79-year-old warehouse? More to the point, how would its conversion help polish the image of an institution preparing graduate students for careers in the 21st century?

Now that campus planners have had some time to figure out what to do with this hulking structure in the 700 block of West Lombard Street, what may have started out as a headache for them now looks more like a gift from heaven. And much of the credit is due to a design team that is using a clever bit of architectural legerdemain to transform an abandoned warehouse into an impressive symbol of Baltimore's emergence as a center for the life sciences.

The key to it all was a bold and rather risky decision to de-face the warehouse, literally, and give it a new skin that improves the building's appearance while better reflecting the abrupt change in use.

Reskinning a building is not always the right approach, especially when a building is as essentially sound and handsome as the Hutzler's warehouse. It was built in 1914 by the Gandy Belting Co., a sailcloth maker whose main factory at Pratt Street and Fremont Avenue has been converted to loft apartments. Never used by Gandy, the Lombard Street building's original tenant was the Morton Samuels Shoe Co., maker of Newark brand shoes. Later sold to Hutzler's for storage of retail goods, it would probably be eligible for landmark designation if anyone pursued it.

Dramatic change in use

In this case, the dramatic change in appearance was prompted by an equally dramatic change in use. State officials intend to convert the warehouse into a $38 million medical biotechnology center, one of six branches of the Maryland Biotechnology Institute. Under the state's plan, the six-story building would contain 196,000 square feet of laboratories and related research space, surrounding a central atrium.

While the building was large enough to house the desired research space, its exterior was not ideally suited to the new use. Large loft windows were useful for seamstresses, but they let in far more light than most laboratory researchers need or want. In addition, a 1966 annex on the eastern end of the building does not look the same as the 1914 building, giving the complex a split personality.

Further supporting the quest for a new look were the university's concerns about the building's image. "The people here are looking to the future," said Calvin Correll, supervisor for facilities program and design at the downtown campus. "They don't want to look like a night school operating out of an old converted warehouse. They want the design to say this is a place where futuristic research is occurring for the 21st century."

The job of arriving at an appropriate new image fell to a joint venture of Davis, Brody & Associates of New York and BWJ Inc. of Baltimore. Their latest plan calls for the north facades of both the 1914 and 1966 buildings to be removed and replaced with a single surface. Conforming with new campus design guidelines, the building would have a distinctive base, middle and top. Rectangular windows would replace the strip windows of the modern annex, and the main entrance would be relocated to a side courtyard off Lombard Street.

The most dramatic change would come at the top of the warehouse, where the architects have proposed adding a large mechanical penthouse with a sloping roof.

At the point where the new roof meets the north wall, an exaggerated cornice made of tubular steel would crown the building and wrap around the sides like a high-tech tiara. When the project is complete in 1995 -- assuming state construction funds are allocated this year -- the building would look nothing like the warehouse it used to be, and that is exactly what the university wants.

"It's an in-fill building, but we're trying to give it some presence on the street to herald the new use," said Anthony Louvis, associate partner with Davis, Brody. "It has to fit in, but it also has to make a statement about its new function."

'Hero' building

What makes the idea of recladding the Hutzler's building potentially such a challenge is its mid-block location. A mid-block building typically would be the proper place for a well-designed background or "good soldier" building, a structure that relates well to its neighbors on both sides.

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