A Cast-iron History Course

July 19, 1995|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

At 27, Michael Dougherty has two architecture degrees and experience building structures of brick, stone, steel and concrete. But when he learned a museum addition was going up in Baltimore with a cast-iron facade, he moved halfway across the country to help build it.

Working with cast-iron -- a popular material in the 19th century that was all but forgotten in the 20th -- is like taking the "original course" in modern architecture, he said.

"It was the first time builders separated the wall from the rest of the structure. It's about an assembly of parts that were made elsewhere and brought to the site. It was the beginning of modern building techniques," he said.

Mr. Dougherty is an assistantsite superintendent for the general contractor of the Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center, a $5.8 million building that will contain exhibits about Baltimore history when it opens in April on the campus of the Baltimore City Life Museums.

The building itself will be the biggest exhibit of all. Its signature element is an ornate entrance facade made with hundreds of cast-iron pieces salvaged from the 1869 G. Fava Fruit Co. warehouse, which once stood where the Baltimore Convention Center is now.

The parts range in size from fluted columns that are 14 feet long and weigh more than 2,000 pounds each, to small acanthus leaves that adorn the capitals atop the columns.

Their incorporation into the four-story structure that has taken shape on Front Street, just south of the Shot Tower in East Baltimore, will result in one of the most arresting buildings the city has ever seen, with the potential to attract national attention. It will show a new way to save cast-iron buildings when they cannot remain where they were put up.

"As far as we can tell, this is the first time a 19th-century cast-iron facade has been dismantled, put in storage and then attached to a contemporary building in another location," said Nancy Brennan, executive director of the museums.

It's not just a literal recreation of the old structure, she stressed. "It's an adaptive reuse for a modern application, and a reinterpretation of the original design," she said. "It lends a sense of dignity and artisanship that we couldn't have achieved any other way."

The project is unprecedented, agreed Mel Norton, superintendent for Historical Arts and Casting, a Salt Lake City-based specialist in cast-iron restoration and subcontractor

on the Baltimore job. Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse is the general contractor.

The Utah firm has restored numerous cast-iron-fronted buildings place, including the Marsh and McLennan Building on Pratt Street in Baltimore, but "we've never done it this way before," Mr. Norton said. "This is a first."

Museum trustees are holding an open house today from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. to celebrate the "topping off" of the building and the start of work on its facade.

lTC Today's event is a homecoming of sorts for the cast-iron front, which was shipped to Salt Lake City in preparation for its attachment to the Blaustein building and began arriving back in Baltimore earlier this month.

It also marks the resolution of a nearly 20-year effort by local preservationists to save the facade, manufactured by Hayward, Bartlett and Co. at a time when the productivity of that local foundry and others gave Baltimore a reputation as the "Cast-Iron Capital of the World."

The Fava building (pronounced fah-vuh) originally stood at the -- northwest corner of Charles and Camden streets, part of the site targeted for construction of the $45 million convention center that opened in 1979.

Fifty-eight feet high and 123 feet long, it was built by the W. R. Thomas Oyster and Fruit Packing Co. in an era when merchants in the city's commercial district turned to ornate metal construction for offices and warehouses. The Fava Fruit Co. bought it in the late 1800s and used it as a produce warehouse until the 1970s.

When city officials moved to raze the building for development, preservationists objected. They said the building was Baltimore's finest remaining example of cast-iron architecture and should not be sacrificed.

After weighing arguments fromboth sides, then-housing commissioner Robert C. Embry Jr. decided the building had to come down to make way for the convention center. But he offered an unusual compromise. He pledged that the city would save the cast-iron pieces and seek a developer to reassemble them as part of a new building on another site.

The building was dismantled in 1977 at a cost to the city of $40,000, and each piece of cast-iron was labeled for future reassembly and put in storage.

In 1984, the city sought proposals from groups that would reuse the cast-iron pieces as part of a building project. The Baltimore City Life Museums, in the early stages of planning the exhibition center, was encouraged by the city's development agency to submit a bid. Its proposal was selected over that of a hotel group that wanted to use the facade as the wall of an interior lobby.

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