2 plums go into chef school's recipe

URBAN LANDSCAPE

June 10, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Two architectural gems that were spared from the wrecker' ball during the construction boom of the 1980s will soon have a new life.

The Comfort Inn at 24 W. Franklin Street and the Commerce Exchange building at 17 Commerce Street in Baltimore are about to be sold to an affiliate of the Baltimore International Culinary College for use as housing, teaching, administrative and library space.

A City Council bill introduced this week would authorize the Baltimore International Culinary College Foundation Inc., a nonprofit organization, to use up to $11.5 million from the proceeds of a state bond sale to buy the buildings.

The pending acquisitions are a sign of the college's continuing efforts to take advantage of the buyers' market in downtown real estate and purchase buildings that will help it train students for careers in the food and lodging industry.

They are also evidence of college President Roger Chylinski's strong interest in preserving the best of Baltimore's architectural heritage. "I think it's a perfect role for educational institutions and other nonprofits," he said.

The additions should also give the 21-year-old college a higher profile and show the public how much it is growing, said Courtney McKeldin, vice president for institutional advancement.

"Everyone still thinks we're the little cooking school on Gay Street, but we have 21 buildings now and this will make it 23," she said. "We're not that little anymore."

Both buildings have been thoroughly renovated within the past 10 years by owners who spent nearly twice what the college is spending to buy them. Mr. Chylinski said the foundation will pay $8 million for the inn and $1.84 million for Commerce Exchange and that the sales will be concluded this month.

The Comfort Inn is a 185-room hotel built within the shell of the former Young Men's Christian Association building. The seven-story Renaissance Revival structure was designed by Joseph Evans Sperry and used as a YMCA from its completion in 1908 until it closed in 1981. At that time, it was sold to a local group that converted it to an Econo Lodge Hotel. The total project cost $9.9 million.

Within a year, the hotel was converted to a Comfort Inn. Part of the Cathedral Hill historic district, the building is still in service and most recently has been used to accommodate a successful Elderhostel program for senior citizens who take courses at the Peabody Institute.

Commerce Exchange is another Renaissance Revival building that was constructed in 1904 by members of the Baltimore Chamber of Commerce, a forerunner of the Greater Baltimore Committee. Designed by Charles Cassell, the five-story, 87,000-square-foot building was built on the 1882 foundations of the old chamber headquarters, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1904.

Built as a grain and flour exchange, the tan brick building has a large trading room on the upper floor and offices below that were originally used by traders and exporters. It was rehabilitated for office use in 1984 and 1985 by Ameritas, an Atlanta-based developer, at a cost of $5.5 million. Ameritas sold it to Fidelity and Guaranty Life Insurance Co., a USF&G Corp. affiliate that later moved to Mount Washington. An official city landmark, the building has been substantially vacant for more than a year.

Mr. Chylinski said the college is expanding its curriculum to include hotel management and other courses and needed additional space to accommodate its growing student body.

The enrollment is the highest in the college's history, a full-time equivalent of 500 students, and that figure is expected to grow to 600 within two years.

Commerce Exchange will house the college's library, career center and other departments. "It's a gorgeous facility, and it lends itself perfectly to our needs," Mr. Chylinski said.

The Comfort Inn will continue to function as an inn, and its staff of 12 will become employees of the foundation.

The main change is that the number of rooms will be reduced to about 135 and the leftover space will be converted to housing for 50 to 80 students.

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