A Bit of Baltimore True to history: Iron-fronted building, a beguiling new gateway, is the city's perfect Bicentennial gift to itself.

April 11, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

It all began with a promise.

If the G. Fava Fruit Company's historic cast iron facade could be dismantled to make way for a new downtown convention center, Baltimore's housing commissioner pledged he would see that its parts were stored for future reconstruction.

It was a promise that easily could have been forgotten over the years, as people and priorities changed more than once at the top levels of city government. Back in 1976, no one knew exactly how the facade might be reused or what it would cost to reconstruct.

But nearly two decades after then-commissioner Robert C. Embry Jr. made that audacious commitment, Marylanders are finally reaping the benefits. Starting at 10 a.m. tomorrow, visitors will be able to see for themselves that the cast iron facade has been used in the most appropriate of ways: as the frontispiece for a museum addition that celebrates Baltimore history -- the Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center.

As erected on Front Street east of downtown, the iron-fronted building provides a beguiling new gateway to Baltimore. Along with the memory-triggering exhibits inside, it turned out to be the city's perfect gift to itself for Baltimore's Bicentennial in 1997.

Cast iron was the construction material of choice for local 19th-century builders who wanted to show pride in the businesses they ran and the properties they owned. It had the weight and permanence of stone. It could be sculpted into a variety of decorative shapes. It was convenient to work with and relatively inexpensive. And Baltimore was a center of its production -- the self-proclaimed "Cast Iron Capital of the World."

All of these factors made the Fava facade a splendid choice for use in a building tracing the city's history. Its incorporation into a new building has produced one of the most unusual and distinctive buildings Baltimore has ever seen -- a 21st-century structure made with 19th-century construction techniques.

But what really distinguishes the Blaustein center from other preservation projects is not simply the decision to attach an old front to the new structure, rare as that is.

What gives this project national significance is the architects' decision to come up with a different configuration for the cast iron -- one that better suits its new use and location -- and then create a building that takes advantage of the revamped design.

Manufactured by Hayward, Bartlett and Company and erected from 1869 to 1876, the Fava building originally occupied the northwest corner of South Charles and Camden streets, where Baltimore's Convention Center now stands. 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 Company bought it in the late 1800s and used it as a produce warehouse until the 1970s.

The job of incorporating the dismantled facade into a new building along Museum Row fell to Peterson & Brickbauer, a respected Baltimore firm that has created some of the most attractive buildings in the Baltimore area since 1963. In the mid-1980s, architects Warren Peterson and Charles Brickbauer, working with project manager Hugh McCormick, were commissioned to design a 30,000-square-foot exhibition center that would rise just north of the Carroll Mansion, anchor for a seven-building history campus known as the Baltimore City Life Museums.

From the start, the architects were concerned that the five-bay facade would overwhelm the smaller buildings nearby. So instead of re-erecting it in one plane as it was on Charles Street, they proposed folding it like an accordion to step back from Front Street and the Carroll Mansion. Altering the facade that way, they reasoned, would de-emphasize the scale of the new building and help it fit more comfortably into the complex.

Part of the miracle behind the reconstruction is the artful way in which the original cast iron has been supplemented by newly-made replacement pieces. Since only about 50 percent of the original pieces survived in usable form, the architects had to fabricate pieces to replace ones that were lost or broken over the years.

To save money, they decided to make the new pieces from cast aluminum rather than cast iron, and paint both old and new one color so no one could tell the difference. They also had to fabricate new pieces to turn the "corners" that didn't exist before. The only way to tell what is aluminum and what is iron is to hold a magnet up to each piece. If it sticks, it's iron; if it doesn't, it's aluminum.


When the Fava facade was first erected, craftsmen made most of the design decisions, Mr. Brickbauer explained. "It was all done by carpenters, not architects."

For the reconstruction, "we had to be the craftsmen," he said. "We had to think the way they did and figure it out."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.