Transformed to a Mount Vernon gem

URBAN LANDSCAPE

September 15, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

When the Annie E. Casey Foundation announced plans last year to move its headquarters from Greenwich, Conn., to Baltimore, many thought it could be an ideal candidate to anchor the National Children's Center planned for the former Brokerage complex at 34 Market Place.

The children's advocacy group, which makes annual grants of more than $67 million, would have been a logical fit for an office complex designed to house nonprofit groups working on children's issues.

But directors liked the Mount Vernon section of Baltimore, with its restaurants and cultural institutions. They wanted the foundation to be in its own building, rather than part of a larger complex.

Since March, Casey's directors have forged a strong and positive identity for the organization on the site they chose, the northeast corner of St. Paul and Monument streets. In the process, they transformed a dull, institutional building to the Mount Vernon renascent gem it was meant to be.

With a new coat of paint, flower boxes outside the windows, and other changes, the five-story building has never looked better. Its transformed appearance elevates and dignifies the east end of Mount Vernon Place.

The significance of the latest transformation, which officially opens Monday, is that it shows how relatively minor touches and attention to detail can make a difference in the urban landscape.

The building Casey chose for its headquarters was the ugly duckling of Mount Vernon Place, a structure that hadn't been fixed up in years. Constructed from 1966 to 1968 by the Mount Vernon Building Co., headed by Harry Myerberg, it was originally marketed as medical offices. In 1971, Mr. Myerberg leased it to the city of Baltimore, which used it as municipal office space until 1991. It languished until Casey signed a 10-year lease this year.

When constructed, the building was the first new office structure to rise in Mount Vernon in years. The original architect, William Truillo, clearly tried to make it compatible with the historic district. But it was still a modern intrusion, the kind of banal backdrop people never notice.

Now, they'll notice. The architectural team from Cho, Wilks & Benn, headed on this project by architect Diane Cho and interior designer Dianne Rohrer, took a cue from the nearby Hackerman BTC House and Peabody Inn and painted the exterior in two colors, cream and taupe.

They carved out an arcade along St. Paul Street and added ornamental lights and railings that impart a 1990s twist. To relieve the flat facades, they specified flower boxes overflowing with white petunias and geraniums, asparagus ferns, and blue scaevola.

The overhaul continues inside, where the architects opened up the center to create a five-story, light-filled atrium. Its proportions arereminiscent of the main space inside the Peabody Library, only more intimate.

Handcrafted details abound, including blown glass light fixtures by Anthony Carrodetti and splayed metal rails. Touches such as these add a sense of warmth and humanity, without inflating the $2.3 million construction budget. A first floor library and community meeting room are available to the public -- a sign of the foundation's desire to be a good neighbor.

Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse was the general contractor. The flower boxes were cultivated by Devra Hankins of He'Ui, a local firm whose name means "beautiful hands" in Hawaiian.

Casey representatives are delighted with their chosen location.They have reason to be. So does the Mount Vernon community. It may have lost the Flower Mart festival for 1995, but it gained the rejuvenated Flower Box Building and its civic-minded occupants.

Fort McHenry

The Patriots of Fort McHenry have received 150 orders for prints of "The Flag is Full of Stars," the Dale Gallon oil painting unveiled this week as part of an effort to raise $5.5 million for a new visitors' center at the fort. Money raised by selling a limited edition of 950 signed prints ($175 unframed and $350 framed), will be used to hire an architect. Prospective donors can call 625-2202.

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