2 letters' days are numbered

April 09, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

The letters atop the Maryland National Bank Building -- a colorful signature on Baltimore's skyline for more than 20 years -- will soon be history.

NationsBank Corp., which acquired Maryland National last year, plans to remove the giant "mn" letters and to restore the crown of the 34-story building, Baltimore's only Art Deco skyscraper.

The copper shingles on the sloping roof will be cleaned and repaired. A new coat of 23-karat gold leaf will be applied to the roof's cap and its six ornamental ribs.

At night, the tower will be illuminated spectacularly under a plan by Douglas Leigh, the elderly expert who lighted the Empire State Building in New York.

Restoration of the top of the building, at 10 Light St., is expected to take six months and cost from $750,000 to $1 million.

"To many Baltimoreans, the Maryland National Bank Building is the skyline," said Walter Schamu, a local architect. His firm -- Schamu, Machowski, Doo and Associates -- is a consultant on the project.

"You don't need the signs on the building. The building is the sign. Baltimoreans were in love with it when it opened and they still are," he said.

When the tower was built in 1929, "it was the dominant building on the skyline," said Lewis Howie, associate vice president of RTKL Associates, lead architect in the restoration. "Now it's there amidst a forest of tall buildings. I think the lighting and gold leaf will bring back its prominence."

"The combination of green and gold will be beautiful," he said, referring to the patina on the copper roof. The gold ribs are approximately 57 feet high.

Officials of NationsBank, which is based in Charlotte, N.C., detected no sentiment within Baltimore to retain the huge letters, which changed colors to forecast the weather.

"We've had no significant negative reaction at all," said Don Freiert, senior vice president in charge of real estate services in NationsBank's Mid-Atlantic region.

The letters will be donated to the Baltimore Museum of Industry after removal this spring. A helicopter equipped with a winch will be used. "When you take down the 'mn' sign, you show the way the building looked 50 years ago," Mr. Freiert said. "It says we respect the past and we're committed to restoring the building for the future."

The 509-foot-tall building, designed by architects Taylor & Fisher and Smith & May, opened in 1929 as the Baltimore Trust Building.

Within two years, the Baltimore Trust Co. went out of business, and the building remained largely vacant through the 1930s. It was purchased by a Hagerstown businessman in the early 1940s, renamed the O'Sullivan Building, and rented to government agencies.

In 1949, the Fidelity-Baltimore National Bank and the Mathieson Chemical Co. bought the tower and renamed it the Mathieson Building. It kept that name until 1962, when Fidelity-Baltimore became Maryland National Bank.

The NationsBank Building will be the tower's fifth name.

The 361,740-square-foot building is owned by an affiliate of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, but NationsBank has a master lease that gives it control of the building until 2020. The tower can't be called NationsBank's local headquarters because top executives are in another building, said Carl Ference of the Charles E. Smith Companies, property manager for NationsBank's Maryland properties.

Maryland National added its lowercase "mn" sign in 1971 at a cost of $160,000. On the north and south sides, the letters are 12 feet high and permanently white. The letters on the east and west sides are 28 feet high and illuminated with neon light in three colors.

To help observers decipher the weather forecast, the bank once distributed cards that explained:

"When the sign is red

warm weather's ahead

When the sign is blue

cooler weather's due

An amber light

means no change in sight

When a color moves in agitation

there's going to be precipitation."

For several years in the 1970s, the letters went dark to save energy. The blinking ceased in the 1980s.

Bank officials will not disclose the timing of the removal because they don't want to draw a crowd that might hold up work. The signs are so large -- the small ones weigh 3 tons and the large ones weigh 5 tons -- that the operation is expected to take more than one day.

The helicopter will maneuver the letters to street level for shipment by truck to a storage site.

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