Eysore could become an eyeful


April 06, 1995|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

The state-owned building at the corner of Maryland and Mount Royal avenues in Baltimore is a disgrace to Maryland taxpayers: rundown, dingy, with shingles falling off the roof and paint peeling down to the wood.

But with just a bit of attention this forlorn little structure, known as the Odorite building, could be transformed from an eyesore to an attractive visual gateway for the Mount Royal Cultural District.

Imagine its large plate-glass windows filled with costumes from performances at the Lyric Opera House, or posters announcing future attractions. Window boxes could be brimming with flowers. Exterior walls could be repainted in colors that highlight its distinctive Tudoresque architecture.

All it needs is an occupant. The ideal one is just around the corner.

The Baltimore Opera Company, one of the Lyric's lead tenants, needs a home. Its lease at 1202 Maryland Ave. is due to expire in summer 1996. It needs an inexpensive location close to the Lyric, easy to find, with enough room for a box office and administrative staff, and a place where volunteers can stuff envelopes.

The vacant Odorite building could be everything the opera company needs and more.

Built in 1916 at 25-31 W. Mount Royal Ave., it originally served as a showroom for the Monumental Motor Car Co. Designed by Wilson Smith and Howard May, it features an applied surface decoration and window treatment inspired by the Elizabethan Tudor style, a popular look for commercial and residential buildings in the early 20th century.

Nearby automobile-related buildings of the same vintage include the Towne Building at 11-19 E. Mount Royal Ave., built in 1909 for Zell Motor Co., and the Chase-Brexton Health Services building (formerly Girard's nightclub) at 1001 Cathedral St., built in 1914 for Cleveland Automobile Co.

Smith and May later worked on such landmarks as the NationsBank tower at 10 Light St. and the North Avenue Market.

In the early 1970s, the two-story building was acquired by the Odorite Co. of Baltimore, a seller of cleaning supplies. Its owner took great pride in the building and maintained it well. But in 1991, the University of Baltimore acquired it for $750,000, and the company moved up the street.

University President H. Mebane Turner sought to tear down the Odorite building to make way for a parking lot or a future expansion site. But former Gov. William Donald Schaefer blocked the demolition after preservationists protested, citing the structure's importance as an early example of the work by Smith and May and a key element of the Mount Vernon historic district.

The university subsequently leased the building to the general contractor for the Robert G. Merrick School of Business. But now that work on the business school is complete, the contractor has left.

Asked about the building, Dr. Turner said the university has no immediate plans for it because "we have no money to do anything with it." But he would be willing to entertain lease proposals. "If somebody wants to rent it from us, we'd be glad to rent it to them. But it would take a lot of money to get it back in good shape."

Leslie Rehbein Marqua, director of development for the opera company, said she didn't know the building was available and would pursue the idea. "It's an interesting thought -- particularly since it's so close to the Lyric and such a wonderful-looking building," she said.

The Baltimore Opera Company is just the sort of organization that should occupy this Mount Vernon landmark. As a nonprofit arts group, it might be able to persuade designers and contractors to donate services and materials. And its presence in the building would be a sign that the cultural district's boundaries are expanding.

It would be a challenge, as Dr. Turner warns. But anyone who saw the magnificent sets for the recent production of "Samson et Dalila" knows this is one organization that could definitely pull it off.

Harbor house tour

Fourteen homes in Baltimore's Federal Hill and Fells Point neighborhoods will be open to the public during the Historic Harbor House Tour on Sunday, April 23, from noon to 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 on the day of the tour. For information, call the Preservation Society at 675-6750.

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