Historic station awaits start of restoration

URBAN LANDSCAPE

January 05, 1995|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

When dignitaries gather Tuesday to launch the reconstruction of President Street Station, the ceremonies will mark an end to 20 years of uncertainty about the fate of the Civil War-era landmark.

Once the $950,000 restoration is complete in the spring of 1996, the Greek Revival building will be a Civil War and transportation museum that is expected to draw 75,000 to 100,000 visitors a year.

It also will provide a sculptural centerpiece for the 20-acre Inner Harbor East area, planned as a $350 million community of housing, offices, shops and restaurants.

"When we put on a cornice, fix the windows and repoint the brick, it's going to be a spectacular little building," said Shawn Cunningham, managing director of the B&O Railroad Museum, which has agreed to oversee restoration work and manage the property during its first two years of operation.

Located near President and Fleet streets, the 1852 station is the oldest surviving big-city depot in the United States. It was one of the busiest passenger terminals in Baltimore until 1873, when a new station opened on Charles Street.

The most significant event associated with the station was a bloody riot that led to the first casualties of the Civil War. On April 19, 1861, one week after Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the 700-member 6th Massachusetts Regiment arrived at President Street Station.

As they marched up Pratt Street heading toward Camden Station, the soldiers were confronted by a stone-throwing mob of Southern sympathizers. At least nine civilians and three soldiers died in the fighting that ensued.

President Street Station served as a freight terminal from the 1870s to the 1950s and was acquired by the city in the 1970s. A local group called the Friends of President Street Station has worked for years to save it.

In 1992, Maryland's Department of Transportation awarded a $495,000 "enhancement" grant for that purpose, and the city of Baltimore has agreed to supplement it through grants and in-kind services.

The restoration architect is Kieran, Timberlake & Harris of Philadelphia. Courtney Wilson of Ellicott City is expected to be the exhibit designer.

Working with the B&O museum, the Friends group and others, the designers plan to have construction documents ready for bidding this spring, so work can begin in the summer.

Mr. Cunningham said the planning has been a challenge because the fire-damaged building lacks much of its original detail, and a complete set of 19th-century drawings no longer exists.

The goal is to restore the building's exterior as much as possible to the way it looked in 1861, with the help of a perspective drawing that shows the north and west facades from that era.

Though no drawings exist for the south side, he said, it will be restored to match the north side, down to the cast iron brackets near the roof.

The design of the east facade, due to serve as the museum's main entrance, is still being determined. A long train shed, erected next to the brick headhouse, disappeared years ago. Some have suggested that the shed be reconstructed, but land is not available to do that under the city-approved renewal plan for Inner Harbor East.

Mr. Cunningham said the B&O museum is willing to explore the idea of constructing one or two bays of the shed, perhaps to house restrooms and a ticket office, if additional funds can be identified quickly.

Designers also are considering a plan that calls for a series of semi-arched lights to create a "ghost" outline of the missing shed, and for its silhouette to be articulated in stucco on the east wall.

Mr. Cunningham said he will meet later this month with the Friends of President Street Station in an effort to make some final design decisions.

The station once had two floors and an attic, but the upper levels are missing and the current plan calls for just one level of exhibits.

They will focus on three topics: Civil War-era Baltimore and the Pratt Street riot, the building's role as a stop on the "Underground Railroad" used by slaves to escape northward to freedom in the 1850s and the architecture of the station.

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