Owner moves to save Fells Point landmark Fire damaged 1840s warehouse

URBAN LANDSCAPE

November 11, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

After a spectacular fire ravaged one of Fells Point's most treasured landmarks, an 1840s-era warehouse known as Chase's Wharf, its owner is acting quickly to save what is left.

Crews working for Constellation Real Estate Group, owner of the waterfront building at 1401 Thames St., this week began removing all fire-damaged timbers and will stabilize the remaining brick shell before winter sets in.

The two-alarm fire on Oct. 30 destroyed the roof and much of the top floor of the vacant, three-story building, also known as the Sugar House. Investigators say the fire may have been started by homeless people trying to keep warm.

Structural engineers have since determined the structure is sound but must be braced right away, according to Florence Beck Kurdle, vice president of development for Constellation, a subsidiary of the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

"We're shoring it up," Ms. Kurdle said. "It was significantly damaged, but it's an important building. We decided if we could save it, we wanted to do that."

The emergency stabilization work is "the most logical thing to do at the moment, because they don't know what the building is going to be used for," said David Gleason, an architect who lives in Fells Point and toured the fire site on behalf of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point.

"This will give them more time to look at their options and figure out what they need to do next, whether it's putting on a new roof or moving ahead with a more extensive restoration plan."

The building is one of four historic structures that area preservationists have wanted Constellation to save, especially since the company tore down the Terminal Warehouse at 1601 Thames St. a year ago. The others are Miller's Wharf, a large brick warehouse at 1501 Thames St., and the George Wells House and London Coffee House, both at Bond and Thames streets. Constellation stabilized the two smaller houses a year ago and blocked the windows of the warehouses to keep out trespassers.

In all, Constellation controls 12 acres of the Fells Point waterfront, including the Brown's Wharf commercial and office complex at Broadway and Thames Street. Representatives have agreed to work with the community to find new uses for the vacant buildings but say they must identify users before they can launch a complete restoration effort.

Chase's Wharf is significant because it was at the center of Baltimore's maritime activities for more than 100 years. It also represents one of the few remaining city warehouses that date from an era before elevators were in use.

"It's an important part of Baltimore's maritime heritage," said Ro

maine Somerville, executive director of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point. "It represents a good portion of the economic history of this community -- shipping and warehousing."

"It seems to be a building that is precious to people," said Carolyn Donkervoet, past executive director of the preservation society. "If it were taken down, I believe that Fells Pointers would regret the loss considerably."

The builder was Thorndike Chase of Kirkland, Chase & Co., a major shipping firm that traded in the West Indies.

One of six warehouses that were clustered around Thames and Philpot Streets, it was distinguished by rounded corners and a "Dutch gable" pediment on one side.

After Kirkland's bankruptcy in 1873, the property passed to the Baltimore and Ohio railroad.

Constellation acquired it in the 1980s.

Preservationists say the name Sugar House is a misnomer because the warehouse was used mostly to store coffee and acquired its nickname after another building called the Sugar House was torn down.

"We're happy they're stabilizing it for the winter," Mrs. Somerville said. "But we're still very anxious to see it redeveloped. It's a key spot, and it could anchor that whole end of the neighborhood."

Cordish kudos

Furness House, a Palladian-style landmark on South Street that has been exquisitely restored as the headquarters for Brown Asset Management, is drawing national recognition. The Urban Land Institute last week named it one of country's most outstanding real estate development projects at an awards ceremony in Boston. It is the third project by Cordish & Co. to receive a ULI honor. Also recognized were the architects, Design Collective and Studio Wanda.

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