Uncovering newspaper history Renovators' discovery: Workers at a downtown building uncover inscriptions for the old Baltimore American and four windows for displaying its daily editions.

Urban Landscape

March 28, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

IN AN ERA when most cities have planning commissions and design advisory panels that review building projects long before construction gets under way, there isn't much opportunity for architectural surprise.

But a local construction crew recently made a discovery that qualifies as pure serendipity -- for the building owner, occupants and passers-by.

Renovation workers at the American Building at the southwest corner of South and Baltimore streets uncovered large cast-iron inscriptions bearing the name of the building's original owner-occupant, the Baltimore American newspaper.

The decorative ironwork had been obscured by ugly aggregate concrete panels that have surrounded the building's base since 1963. Workers also uncovered four display windows in which the publishing company showcased daily editions of the Baltimore American and the Baltimore Star, and ornate pillars that framed the cast ironwork.

An affiliate of The Orion Group of Columbia bought the 14-story building at auction for $265,000 in 1994 and is spending about $4 million to upgrade it for continued office use. Most of the work will be done by midyear.

Paul F. Black Jr., Orion's director of business development, said he had not known what the crews would find at the base. He said Orion just wanted to remove the aggregate panels because they detracted from the building's otherwise handsome appearance.

After looking at old drawings of the building, he said, "I thought there would be columns and maybe a wooden facade with glass. But there was no way you could tell there would be cast iron."

He said the work has attracted considerable attention in recent weeks from sidewalk superintendents curious to see what has been uncovered.

"On warm days, the number of people who stop on Baltimore Street and South Street has been unreal," he said. "Everyone wants to see what is going to be revealed next," he said.

Designed by Simonson and Pietsch, the building was the home of the Baltimore American from 1905 to 1920. Costing $1.1 million, it was constructed on the site of an earlier was the city's oldest newspaper and the first to publish "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Its Baltimore Street building had a it moved to South and Lombard streets in 1963 and folded in 1986.

The American Building subsequently housed office tenants who wanted to be in the heart of the financial district and near City Hall.

DRBrasher of Columbia is the architect for the restoration. Brian Hanlon, an architect for DRBrasher, said the owners have revised their plans so they can save as much of the ornamental detailing as possible.

He said that Orion plans to create a food court at street level with four or five merchants and that the cast iron will be repainted, most likely deep green, to mark the entrance.

When the owners started taking off the old surface, "it was a giant surprise" to see what was underneath, Mr. Hanlon said. "They're delighted with what they uncovered. The intent is to clean it and restore it to its original appearance."

Mr. Black said hiring restoration experts and preserving the exterior will add to the cost, but the effort will be worthwhile.

The work may even help Orion find tenants, he said, because it will make the building more distinctive.

"It's a piece of history," he said. "If it's restored properly, it will be something everyone can appreciate."

Documentary on Maya Lin

The Baltimore Architecture Foundation will present an Academy Award-winning documentary about architect Maya Lin at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Maryland Institute, College of Art's Mount Royal Station Building, 1400 Cathedral St.

Educated at Yale University, Ms. Lin designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., and other distinctive projects that combine art and architecture.

This is the first Baltimore showing of the film, "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision," which won the 1995 Oscar for best documentary.

Tickets cost $6. They may be purchased at the door or by calling 625-2585.

Pub Date: 3/28/96

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