Art deco bank building gets freshly gilded roof and slimmer silhouette

ARCHITECTURE REVIEW

August 21, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

Before NationsBank removed the giant "mn" letters last April from atop the former Maryland National Bank Building in Baltimore, its executives vowed to make the "bonnet" underneath look as good as new.

Now that the $300,000 project is complete -- including repairs to the copper shingles and a new coat of gold leaf on the "ribs" and cornice -- it is apparent the bankers weren't exactly true to their word. They made it look even better.

The restored tower at 10 Light St. -- now renamed the NationsBank Building -- never before looked the way it does today. That's because the bank and its consultants took steps to make the 60-foot-tall mansard roof stand out more than ever.

According to the hard-hat artist who applied the new gold leaf to the roof, the original material may have been as bright when the tower opened in 1929 as it is today, but it did not cover as much of the surface. And it was not set against the blue-green backdrop it has today, since it took years of oxidation for the copper shingles to acquire their patina.

In its calculated attempt to improve on the past, the bank succeeded beyond all expectations. It rescued a classic building that had been upstaged by new construction in recent years and made it the center of attention again.

In the process, it transformed the 34-story structure from a background building to the dominant and defining symbol on the skyline -- Baltimore's "Golden Oldie."

The rooftop restoration is the most visible part of a $1 million campaign by NationsBank to renovate the Light Street tower, Baltimore's only art deco skyscraper. The North Carolina-based banking giant gained control of it as part of its 1993 acquisition of Maryland National Bank.

The decision to remove the letters made good sense because the Maryland National name will soon be replaced by NationsBank, and the "mn" will lose its marketing value. But it also presented a dilemma for the bank and its architect, RTKL Associates, because the building is such a familiar landmark.

They could have played it safe and simply completed minimal repairs, patching holes left by the removal of the frame that held up the letters. But to its credit, NationsBank wanted to replace the letters with a look that was distinctive, marketable and respectful of the building it inherited.

The idea of reapplying gold leaf came from the bank lighting consultant, Douglas Leigh. Based in New York, he has made a career of illuminating landmarks such as the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. Now 87, he is old enough to remember how effective gold leaf was when it was first applied to skyscrapers in the 1920s and 1930s.

To apply the gold leaf, the bank employed a team of gilders headed by R. Wayne Reynolds of Baltimore and Michael Kramer of Olney. Mr. Reynolds has a studio in Hampden and is well-known locally, but he had never worked on such a large project. Mr. Kramer has extensive experience on projects such as this, including a spire on the NationsBank Plaza tower in Atlanta.

Before they could begin work in Baltimore, the artisans had to determine what areas to gild. From records, they knew this building was one of the few in Baltimore that ever had gold trim on the exterior. But when they examined the vestiges of the worn-off first coat, they discovered that it did not completely cover the roof's six pilasters and crown.

Instead, it was used sparingly to highlight ornamental shapes, including diamonds, scrolls, rosettes and abstract wheat sheaves. The gold was set against a black background, which in turn was set against the copper shingles. As a result, it was not nearly so striking.

"For the scale of this building, it was a pinstripe," Mr. Reynolds said. "This is not a pinstripe scale."

The gilders evaluated many options, from replicating the original design to covering the entire bonnet in gold. After careful study, the bank chose to strike a compromise and completely coat the ribs and crown.

According to Mr. Reynolds, bank officials were concerned that coating the entire roof in gold could be overkill, while repeating the original "pinstripe" pattern would not yield the dramatic results they were seeking.

"They could have made the wrong call, and it would have been a disaster," Mr. Reynolds said. "Baltimore would have resented it."

With the compromise, he said, the contrast between the weathered copper and the gold ribs was certain to be stunning. In all, they covered 6,400 square feet of roof surface, nearly the size of a baseball diamond. Although they have not disclosed exactly how much of the $300,000 budget went for the gold, one sign of its value is that it was kept in the bank's vault until it was needed.

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