USF&G building: A giant that told of wonders to come

January 21, 1995|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

Long before the opening of the National Aquarium or Harborplace, the USF&G building stood as the premiere symbol of Baltimore's Inner Harbor renaissance.

It was the first high-rise corporate headquarters to be constructed as part of the waterfront renewal effort launched by then-Mayor Theodore McKeldin in 1963.

Its high-quality design and finishes set the tone for other buildings that followed.

Its rapid construction in the early 1970s provided the first tangible evidence that the city's grand plans for the Inner Harbor could be realized.

As USF&G prepares to shift its headquarters to Mount Washington from the 36-story building at 100 Light St., planners who played key roles in its creation recalled yesterday what a pivotal landmark it became for the city.

They say it was as critical to the success of the 250-acre Inner Harbor renewal area as was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's office tower at 1 N. Charles St. to the 33-acre Charles Center renewal area.

"It made believers out of a lot of people who didn't think the Inner Harbor plan would go anywhere," said Martin Millspaugh, former president and chief executive officer of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management, now the Baltimore Development Corp.

From an urban design point of view, "it's a linchpin for the Inner Harbor," said David Wallace, former partner of Wallace Roberts and Todd, the Philadelphia-based firm that designed the master plan for the Inner Harbor.

"If you look at it from a boat, it's a punctuation point at one corner of the Inner Harbor, signifying where the central business district meets the waterfront."

The harbor's urban design guidelines dictated that buildings framing the west and north shores have a continuous cornice line, Mr. Wallace said.

"This is the point where they come together, the confluence of the two sides. . . . As architecture, it's one of the more handsome buildings in the Inner Harbor. As a piece of urban design . . . it's spectacular."

The city sold the land to USF&G when the company was looking for a location where it could consolidate employees scattered in several office buildings downtown.

After interviewing notable architects such as Louis Kahn, Pietro Belluschi and Vincent Kling, USF&G hired Vlastimil Koubek, a talented Czechoslovakian native in his 30s.

He designed a tall, slender building made with the finest finishes, including Spanish pink granite on the exterior and rosewood and English brown oak inside.

Four levels of parking were buried underground to preserve the tower'sslender proportions. A Henry Moore sculpture was commissioned for the base.

"USF&G said, 'We want a signature building that will be recognized around the world as our home offices in Baltimore, so magnificent that even our agencies in Australia will know it when they see it,' " Mr. Koubek said yesterday.

Ground was broken in June 1970. The frame was topped out in April 1971 and the building opened in 1974.

The only other buildings under construction in the Inner Harbor renewal area were apartments for the elderly on Light Street and a garage at Lombard and Gay streets.

The USF&G building was designed with a concrete core that contained the elevators and lavatories, and two paired columns at each of the four corners. Each floor was otherwise column free.

Using an innovative construction technique, contractors built the 36-story-tall core in just six weeks -- about a story a day. "They worked continuously," Mr. Koubek recalled.

Not long after USF&G's tower took shape, the IBM Corp. began an 11-story office building at 100 E. Pratt St.

It was followed by the Equitable Bank Center, the Garmatz federal courthouse and many others.

Though dozens of structures have since risen around the harbor, the USF&G tower remains a pivotal building in the composition.

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