Partnership gets a steal in former bank building

URBAN LANDSCAPE

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

Even in Baltimore's relatively affordable real estate market, $175,000 will go only so far.

It will buy a lower-level condominium at HarborView, a good-sized townhouse in Charles Village, or a fixer-upper near Wiltondale. It would cover perhaps two years' rent for a small company in a Class B office building downtown.

But for $175,000, one lucky law firm just bought a piece of Baltimore history, the former Baltimore Commercial Bank building at 26 South St.

Scanlan & Rosen, a 1-year-old law firm that specializes in civil litigation, acquired the building in June and began renovating it for its new headquarters. It plans to move in by November.

The seller was Signet Bank of Maryland, formerly Union Trust Bank. It inherited the building in 1986, when the Bank of Virginia acquired Union Trust, became Signet and assumed control of all the Union Trust branches. Signet closed the building on Dec. 31, 1990, and moved the branch to 300 Lombard St.

Marc Rosen, a partner of the law firm along with Alfred Scanlan Jr., said he was familiar with the building because he banked there. When his firm was looking for office space near the court, he saw a "For Sale" sign on it and decided to investigate.

FTC "We looked at lots of places. We wanted to be in the heart of Baltimore," he said. "This is a natural for us. We can control our own destiny now.

"I think it shows what you can buy if you look hard enough," he said.

The sale of the 10,876-square-foot bank shows how far real estate prices have fallen in downtown Baltimore. At less than $16 per square foot, this may be a new low for a prime property three blocks from the Inner Harbor. To say the lawyers got the deal of the year is an understatement. One might say they robbed a bank.

What's equally remarkable about Scanlan & Rosen's transaction the building's palatial condition and the loving way in which it is being restored.

Designed in a French Renaissance style by E. Francis Baldwin and Josias Pennington, and constructed starting in 1901, this is a building that couldn't be replicated today. It has a limestone and granite facade, arched entrance, bronze doors and Palladian-style windows.

The interior is even grander, a single large banking room with a 40-foot-high coffered ceiling covered with plaster rosettes and other ornamentation. Back rooms on the main floor have fireplaces and mahogany paneling. There must be $175,000 worth of marble floors and bathroom fixtures alone. The basement contains the vault, money-counting rooms and other work spaces.

In recent years, much of the grand banking hall was hidden by an acoustical-tile drop ceiling that made the space appear much smaller. The new owners removed it to reveal a chamber that is surprisingly deep. In the process, they uncovered six brass chandeliers, perfectly intact.

The attorneys intend to restore the interior to its original appearance, while adding new mechanical systems. The banking floor will be the main work area, and the mahogany-paneled rooms will be the partner's offices and conference rooms. The vault will be the law library, money-counting cubicles reading carrels.

Dick Schaefer of Apollo Design Inc. is the architect. Kimberly Rider is the interior designer. Down East Builders of Baltimore is the general contractor.

"It's a once in a lifetime deal, a fantastic space," Mr. Schaefer marveled. "You just don't see buildings like this anymore."

Only after construction began did anyone know what a magnificent space it really was, the architect added. "So often, you find rooms like this that are destroyed," he said. Mr. Rosen "knew he had something. . . . But he didn't see it as this great classical space until the [ceiling] demolition began. Then I think he grasped what a wonderful building he had."

Hopkins update

The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions has demolished the Johns Hopkins Inn, built at the southeast corner of Orleans Street and Broadway in 1960 as a 110-room inn but used most recently as office space. The land is being cleared for a parking lot to replace one at the northeast corner of Orleans and Broadway, site of a proposed $129.7 million comprehensive cancer center. A groundbreaking ceremony for that project is set for Sept. 12.

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