'Tilted Best to tumble in Towson Architecture: The Best Products store at Towson Marketplace has become a local landmark. The building is scheduled to be razed as part of a $20 million renovation of the shopping center.

May 14, 1996|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Edward Gunts contributed to this article.

It's been called art by some, an eyesore by others. Still, the "Tilted Building," the unusual Best Products store at Towson Marketplace, has become a local landmark to all.

Now, though, the building is scheduled to be razed as part of a $20 million renovation of the shopping center -- an event that will mark more than the loss of a signature structure.

The demolition reflects the continuing demise of the eight gravity-defying stores that Best commissioned around the nation the 1970s and early 1980s -- stores that peel, crumble, twist and turn. Soon, only two will remain: one in Richmond, Va., the other in Sacramento, Calif.

"It's representative of the national mentality with the downsizing of the arts," says a disheartened James Wines, a 1951 Towson High School graduate who helped design the stores. "In France, this would never happen."

The losses also raise the question of whether such buildings should be preserved as examples of 20th-century architecture.

"We have trouble saving things in near-history. Are we depriving future generations to come if we don't have these things around?" asks Bruce Webb, dean of the school of architecture at the University of Houston.

He tracked the fate of a Best store in Houston -- one designed with a crumbling facade. It recently was transformed into a video store, with changes to the exterior.

"They destroyed the building," Wines says.

During Best's creative heyday, the striking buildings had the support of company owners Sydney and Frances Lewis,

Richmond residents and well-known patrons of modern art. The company commissioned the New York-based environmental design firm SITE, which stands for Sculpture in the Environment, to design the unusual stores.

Wines' designs placed merchandise mischievously into a building's exterior and created a facade that appeared to be peeling away at the corners. He devised a jagged cutout of a building, which could be opened and closed mechanically. And he fashioned a tropical environment -- complete with a waterfall cascading down a glass-enclosed front.

All followed his theory of "de-architecture," and poked fun at modern architecture's obsession with form as an expression of function.

The Towson store was no different. One corner of the boxy building is lifted into the air, making the jutting facade of 450 tons of structural steel and concrete block a surprising contrast to the typical, suburban shopping center that surrounds it.

"People often ask if it was an accident," says store manager Keith Levy with a laugh.

The Towson store opened in October 1978 with much fanfare, including an appearance by the comic-strip character Spiderman scaling the building. At the time, the 35-year-old shopping center was called Eudowood Plaza.

Through the years, the unusual design has elicited a variety of comments. No one is lukewarm about it, even within families.

"It was different and so unique. I liked it," says Leon Rozankowski, a nearby resident.

His wife, Lorraine, strongly disagrees: "I think it's hideous. It looks like an unfinished building."

Adds quirky filmmaker John Waters, who attended Calvert Hall College high school across the street from the store, "I'm very much for all that look in architecture. It figures anything with originality, they would tear it down."

A shopping center make over in the 1980s resulted in an enclosed mall renamed Towson Marketplace; the Best design survived the remodeling. Now, another transformation is under way.

Florida-based developer James A. Schlesinger has proposed a center of mega-stores to be called Towson Place when completed in about a year.

In its reincarnation, the former mall sandwiched between Joppa Road and Putty Hall Avenue will include Bed, Bath & Beyond, a linen and home accessory store; Michael's, one of the nation's largest arts and crafts chains; a Sports Authority store; and a recently announced Designer Shoe Warehouse.

Two other large stores, yet to be named, will be part of the 675,000-square-foot project, as well as a discount department store, the developer says.

The Best store will be relocated at the shopping center, and will be reconfigured to blend with a proposed Georgian-style design featuring fieldstone and pale brick. Turrets, cupolas and metal roofs will continue the theme.

Schlesinger envisions a uniform, village atmosphere.

Wines, 63, predicts a mundane, boring exterior.

"They are cliches, the mansards and little turrets," he says. "What they are doing is taking away art to create banality."

The wildly artistic days seem to have ended for Richmond-based Best, too.

The Lewises have not been involved with the company for almost a decade, since selling it to a New York investment firm.

And Best, which has 175 stores in 23 states, is fighting problems it faced in 1991 when it filed for a bankruptcy reorganization.

"It certainly served a purpose during the company's history," Best spokesman Ross Richardson says of the unusual storefront design. "It's a different phase now. We have different interests.

"We want to be known for other things besides architecture. The focus is on being a competitive discount retailer."

But Wines points out that the company's financial status has nothing to do with the designs of the buildings. "The art isn't inhibiting the business of the store."

And curator Jay Barrows, who works at the Lewises' Richmond art warehouse, is sorry to see the buildings so cavalierly torn down.

"It's a shame," he says of the news that the Towson store will join the casualty count. "The purpose was to make it not look like a regular shopping center."

Pub Date: 5/14/96

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