Cavernous plant is generating renewed interest POWER PLAY

August 11, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

Nikki and Peenut have been there lately. Donte and Trina (of Eastside) dropped by as well. So did Buzzy and Lynda.

They are among the relatively few people who have come anywhere close to visiting the Pier 4 Power Plant since the Six Flags Corp. closed its P. T. Flagg's nightclub there in 1990.

Today, the city-owned Power Plant stands practically vacant on the north shore of the Inner Harbor, a forlorn symbol of The Renaissance That Faltered. It's the building that everyone wants but no one seems to be able to figure out how to finance.

The Power Plant's dormancy was apparently a source of frustration for Nikki, Peenut, Donte and Trina, who got no farther than the shuttered ticket booth near the main entrance. That's where they scrawled their names, along with other graffiti, much of it unprintable.

Buzzy actually got inside. He's A. B. "Buzzy" Krongard, chief executive officer of Alex. Brown & Sons, the investment firm that's looking for a new headquarters in Baltimore. After he toured the Power Plant last spring, the city offered him a chance to study it in greater detail. He said he'd think about it.

And then there's Lynda O'Dea, who wants to build a sports-themed entertainment center inside. She had been working on it for two years when the city revoked her development rights and offered them to Mr. Krongard. Now she's trying to get back in the picture. Meanwhile, the building is once again up for grabs.

What is it that makes the Power Plant so alluring to developers -- and yet so resistant to development? The answer lies as much with the cavernous spaces inside as with the hulking, brooding presence visible from the pier. It has always been one building that can't be fully understood from afar.

Last week, a visitor to the Power Plant found it to be a place that time forgot, eerily lifeless in the midst of Baltimore's bustling Inner Harbor tourist district.

It's also a curious amalgam of layered images that reflect two incongruous uses the building has had over the past century -- power generating station and Victorian fun house.

Known for its four towering smokestacks and warm red brick, the power station was built from 1900 to 1909 by the United Railways and Electric Co. to supply electricity for the city's streetcars. Alex. Brown was a key investor. In 1921, it was converted to generate steam heat for the Consolidated Electric Co., predecessor of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. Covering nearly an acre, with ceilings up to 75 feet high, the complex actually consists of three buildings, structurally independent but interconnected. It operated until 1973, when BGE declared it to be obsolete. The city bought it for redevelopment in 1977.

$40 million investment

After reviewing more than a dozen proposals over the span of several years, the city leased the Power Plant in 1982 to the Six Flags Corp., an operator of suburban theme parks. It spent $40 million on Pier 4 to create an urban entertainment center that was conceived as a possible prototype for other cities, but it was not to be. Six Flags' Power Plant opened in mid-1985 and closed in 1990, after years of disappointing attendance and millions of dollars inlosses.

Today, the Power Plant looks much the way it did when Six Flags was there. Many of the spaces still exhibit the ornate Victorian decor Six Flags introduced to give character to the different areas it created, such as the Hall of Invention, the Circus of the Mysterious and the Magic Lantern Theater. It's as if the employees went on a coffee break one day and failed to come back.

Though Six Flags removed boilers and related equipment as part of its conversion, the Power Plant still bears numerous vestiges of its industrial heritage, including metal roof trusses and a giant crane at the top of the northernmost building. Natural light still filters through the large clerestory windows in the southernmost building, while other areas are darker and more forbidding, particularly around the smokestacks.

Six Flags' creative gurus conceived the complex as a Jules Verne-esque "time machine" containing the inventions of Phineas Templeton Flagg, their fictional character who served as guiding spirit of the project.

According to Six Flags' script, Phineas Flagg was a futurist, scientist and philosopher who lived at the turn of the century in Baltimore and predicted many of the technological advances that eventually came to pass. The Power Plant was supposed to be not only the site of his workshop but the repository for his inventions, which ranged from a submarine to a scale model of the City of the Future.

After paying admission ($7.95 for adults and $5.95 for children), visitors were allowed to roam around the building, testing and exploring his creations. All that remains of many of these failed innovations -- a leprechaun hologram and a diorama of Pandora's Box, for example -- are the empty alcoves where they were once displayed.

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