Building gets new life, dazzles Mount Vernon

September 12, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

How many downtown office buildings have window boxes cascading full of white petunias and bright blue lobelias? Of picture-postcard perfect views of Mount Vernon Place and the Washington Monument?

The new Annie E. Casey Foundation at 701 St. Paul Street has all this, plus a dramatic interior enriched by some of Baltimore's best young designers, architects and artisans.

Only a few weeks ago did the construction crews and moving vans finish their work at the northeast corner of St. Paul and Monument streets.

Without any fanfare, a very humdrum late 1960s building has been gutted, pulled apart and recast as the new Baltimore headquarters of the non-profit institution that distributed $45 million last year to help disadvantaged children.

"I wanted to do something that would add to the Mount Vernon park setting. We felt that the building as it had existed didn't do much for the site," said Dianne Rohrer, an interior designer with the architectural firm of Cho Wilks Benn.

She admitted it was a challenge to take a boring building that possessed some of the excellent views of the Mount Vernon neighborhood and transform it into the stylish home of a nationally ranked philanthropic agency that moved to Baltimore from Greenwich, Conn.

She, along with architects Diane Cho, John Finnecy and Sharon Aaronson, tapped several local artisans to bring their special talents to the job.

The result is a gracious and worthy addition to Mount Vernon Place, Baltimore's loveliest downtown park-terrace.

The transformation also brings a tremendous vote of confidence to an historic neighborhood that has been somewhat overshadowed in recent years by the Inner Harbor.

A visitor to 701 can't help notice the attractive light fixtures, some of which light a new arcade facing the St. Paul Street side of the structure.

These sconces and hanging lamps are the work of glass blower Anthony Corradetti, whose studio faces the Hollins Market in Southwest Baltimore.

He has created dozens of lantern-like, cone-shaped glass shapes. Some are toned in a swirling amber patterns that the artist often uses in his sculptural conceptions.

A group of wall sidelights are in a milky white glass.

The glass shapes are supported by black iron metal strips.

The principal magic here is how the designers whacked a huge hole in the center third of the interior of the 701, added a large skylight and staircase.

The result is a dramatic, light-filled atrium, that can be easily seen from the street and the new arcade.

Ironique, a firm of metal artists who work out of the old Poole and Hunt foundry in Woodberry, created curving arms for the atrium's interior and stairway.

This ironwork is reminiscent of the style of the French architect Hector Guimard, who came up with the fantastically styled entrances to the Paris Metro.

The reconstruction also left much of the original concrete structure of the building exposed.

These columns and supports are painted yellow ocher.

Large pieces of office furniture (handsome cherry wood) were locally made.

Ms. Rohrer said one of the objectives of the Casey Foundation was to have its 53 employees working within easy communication of one another.

Thanks to the balcony effect created by the atrium, as well as all the exterior and interior windows, it is hard to hide here.

The building's exterior did not change too much, except for the rooftop skylight and a textured paint scheme.

The window boxes, filled with flowers, add a bright note to Mount Vernon Place.

In time, Baltimoreans should get to know the Casey Foundation better.

Douglas W. Nelson, its director, defined his institution's mission as being guided by a single belief:

"Many more American youngsters should have the kind of healthy, safe and successful childhood that leads to a productive life as an adult."

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