Artists wearing hard hats turn bank roof golden

June 16, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

Starting time is 6:30 a.m. for a batch of young artists who wear gold-flecked hard hats to work.

After ascending elevators to the 34th floor of the Maryland National Bank Building, they scale a grid of ladders to reach their work site -- the mansard-style roof of the landmark 1929 office building at 10 Light St. in downtown Baltimore.

The roof is known as the bonnet, a name that newspapers gave this distinctive hood that tops the building that was the city's tallest when it opened.

The roof is a 60-foot-high architectural hat -- something of a tiara -- majestic, steeply tapered and showing its age. For the past couple of months, this chapeau has been forced to wear a large metal scaffolding veil.

But just wait for the work to be completed this fall. It will then re-emerge -- cleaned, relighted and wearing a new gold trim coat.

The task of retrimming this crowning gem of Jazz Age architecture goes to R. Wayne Reynolds, a Hampden gilding artist, and Michael Kramer, who practices the same trade and is based in Olney.

Their crew consists of Owen Wheatley of York, Pa.; Alex Robinson of Stowe, Vt.; Paula Hanchey of Lafayette, La.; Stephen Gallagher of Ocala, Fla.; Ray Schmidt of Jacksonville, Fla.; Lisa Cotter of Springfield, Va.; and Daniel Sellers of Reservoir Hill in Baltimore.

For the next couple of months, they will be hand-applying gold leaf on the sides of a roof so high up that some people get dizzy just looking at it. It's 509 feet from their roost to the Redwood Street side far below.

NationsBank, the firm that bought Maryland National, decided to remove the hideous MN in electric advertising lights from the bonnet. Removing the letters left the pinnacle of the building more or less as designed 66 years ago.

A lighting consultant suggested gold-leafing the topmost roof as a visual accent.

As it turned out, the building had gold leaf in 1929 but years of exposure to the elements and pollution totally obscured this dazzling effect.

"This is going to be one of Baltimore's greatest treasures. I would honestly like to see it put on the cover of Time magazine," says Mr. Reynolds, 41, a Stevenson resident who graduated from the Maryland Institute.

Though he once wanted to become a full-time fine arts painter, he learned picture framing at Towson Artists Supply Co. on York Road. His real passion was gold leaf, or the craft of applying actual gold leafing to picture frames and mirrors.

Today he is recognized as one of the masters of the trade. His gold-leaf framing work hangs in the Oval Office (a Thomas Sully portrait of Andrew Jackson), the National Gallery, the U.S. Capitol, the Treasury Building, Baltimore museums and private collections.

A Maryland National Bank executive brought in an old family mirror for Mr. Reynolds to regild some years ago. That connection led to his getting the roof job.

The work crew will layer six huge pilasters and a top cornice with thousands of 23-karat, 3-by-3-inch gold leaf sheets. The gold leaf is microscopically thin and bonds to the building with a special varnish. When it's not being glued to the roof, the leaf stays in the bank's 24-ton vault.

"The color will be a gold-orange tone -- 97 percent gold, 1 percent copper and 3 percent silver . . . ," says Mr. Kramer, whose background is in architectural gilding. His golden touch extends to New York (the United Nations and St. Vartan's Cathedral) and Shell Oil Plaza in Houston.

Large sections of the roof are covered in copper fish-scale-like shingles. Over the years, they have weathered into a soft green patina. Several of the interlocking copper pieces were damaged. These are being remade in Missouri and installed by roofer James Meyers.

When the building opened on Dec. 6, 1929 -- it was then known as the Baltimore Trust Company -- some 24,738 people toured it.

It was outfitted with Philadelphia iron artist Samuel Yellin's delicate work, artist Hildreth Meiere's mosaics and muralist R. McGill Mackall's heroic canvases of the growth of the port of Baltimore.

The exterior was decorated with many symbols, including the Tree of Life, beehives, hourglasses, wheat sheaves, fish, eagles and hard crabs.

Ironically, Baltimore Trust crumbled fast and furiously in the Depression and took with it many Baltimoreans' hard-earned currency, alas, both silver and gold.

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