When the Club Playgirls' lease expired and it closed permanently on New Year's Eve, it was the end of an era for the old downtown strip joint and its patrons.
But it was the best thing that has happened in years to the six-story loft structure that housed it, the cast iron-fronted Rombro Building at 22-24 S. Howard St.
Club Playgirls' closing clears the way for the building's owner, the David & Annie Abrams Realty Corp. of Baltimore, to begin rehabilitating it to house offices of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Work on the $2 million conversion is scheduled to begin within 45 days and be completed by midyear, with Deerfield Construction Group of Rockville as the general contractor and Soe Lin & Associates of Bethesda as the architect.
Even though the building has not been designated a city or national landmark, the Abrams company intends to complete a landmark-quality restoration of the exterior and a thorough modernization of the interior.
"I think it will be a fantastic addition to the city," said President Michael Abrams.
"It has some beautiful ornamental brickwork, and its interior has never had fire damage," said Vanessa Ford, project architect for Soe Lin.
"We've tried to be sensitive to what's there."
The 26,000-square-foot building was constructed beginning in 1881 by the Johnston Brothers, prominent Baltimore bankers, as a companion to the neighboring Johnston Building at 26-28 S. Howard St. Its top floor was added around 1930.
The Rombro Building is actually a matched pair of loft structures separated by a central wall. It was designed by Baltimore architect Jackson Gott in a "late Victorian commercial" style.
A 1976 city survey described it as one of the few remaining "double warehouses" in the area.
The first occupants were wholesalers of boots and shoes, Clark Perry and Co., and Carroll Adams and Co. After the turn of the century, it was used for clothing manufacturing.
According to Brigitte Fessenden, preservation analyst for Baltimore's Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation, its east facade is among the most elaborate in Baltimore's loft district.
According to plans presented last month to Baltimore's Architectural Review Board, floors two through six will be occupied by the firearms bureau, and the first will be reserved for an entrance lobby and commercial tenant, most likely a restaurant.
Work includes installation of new heating and air conditioning systems and elevators as well as repointing of bricks and other cosmetic improvements on the exterior.
Ms. Ford said the team plans to repair and repaint the front facade's cast iron elements, which are currently concealed by the Club Playgirls entrance. Windows will be created on the south side of the building to let more light into upper floors, and the Howard Street entrance will be barrier-free, she added.
The federal agency plans to consolidate more than 50 employees now in two locations, 103 S. Gay St. and the Fallon building in Charles Center.
Mr. Abrams said his company probably would have not been able to land it without construction of the $38 million City Crescent office building that opened last fall at Baltimore and Howard streets. "The City Crescent building was definitely a catalyst," he said.
Abrams Realty also owns the ornate Abell Building at the southeast corner of Eutaw and Baltimore streets and has been seeking tenants for it as well. Mr. Abrams said he hopes to create a food court on the first level and office space on the upper levels, possibly for public agencies or the University of Maryland.
For now, the federal lease is the Abrams family's reward for holding on and holding out for so long on Howard Street.
The Rombro Building has stood largely vacant for many years, but it remains an important part of city's fabric and history.
Saving old theaters
New uses for old movie theaters will be the subject of a preservation forum at the Senator Theatre, 5904 York Road, Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to noon. Tickets are $12.50 at the door.