'The 20th century is leaving us' Demolition: BGE's towering gas holders, obsolete links to the city's industrial past, will disappear from the Baltimore skyline over the next three years, beginning this month.

August 10, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Baltimore Gas & Electric Co./EMILY HOLMES : SUN STAFF Pub Date: 8/10/96 SUN STAFF

Just as a new football stadium goes up in South Baltimore, three of the area's best known landmarks are coming down.

The Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s giant cylindrical gas holders, rust-colored remnants of Baltimore's industrial past and gatekeepers to the city for thousands of motorists, will disappear over the next three years.

After towering over South Baltimore for most of this century, one will be demolished starting this month. The others are scheduled for removal in 1998 and 1999.

Company officials say that the holders are obsolete and that BGE has more cost effective ways to store gas.

They add that South Baltimore will continue to serve as the center of gas distribution for nearly 600,000 households and businesses in Central Maryland. But they acknowledge that the change marks the end of an era for BGE, a direct descendant of the nation's first gas company.

"These are the dinosaurs of the gas distribution industry," said Linwood Bazemore, supervisor of Gas System Control for BGE. "They're not quite extinct, but we're witnessing the extinction."

A contributing factor to the decision was that the three holders need to be repainted -- a job that could cost $7 million over several years because the work would entail painstaking removal of lead paint. They already cost $1 million a year to operate.

"The bottom line is they're costing the company more money to maintain than they're worth," Bazemore said.

The cylinders are the last of 10 holders and process tanks built between 1855 and 1921 at BGE's 57-acre Spring Gardens property, off the 1600 block of Leadenhall St.

A fourth holder stands by the Jones Falls Expressway near Cold Spring Lane. It also is expected to come down in several years.

The gas holders in South Baltimore, originally known as "gas-ometers," were constructed between 1912 and 1921, during the presidencies of William H. Taft and Woodrow Wilson.

Holder No. 8, which was taken out of service in June, is the oldest and can hold up to 6 million standard cubic feet of natural gas. Nos. 9 and 10 are expected to be retired by Dec. 31, 1997.

At the time they were made by the Bartlett-Hayward Co., they were among the largest and most expensive gas holders in the nation and the largest structures in the city. Nos. 8 and 9 are 219 feet high -- the equivalent of a 22-story building. No. 10 is 237 feet high. The upper concourse of the new football stadium, by contrast, will be about 85 feet above street level.

Vestiges of the past

To Dennis Zembala, director of the Baltimore Museum of Industry, the holders are reminders of the days when Baltimore was the first U.S. city to use gas to illuminate street lights.

"They've been there so long they've sort of become a symbol of downtown Baltimore," Zembala said. "Over the years, the company has painted them every color in the rainbow to cover up the rust.

"The design is ingenious. It's quite a structural feat. They're huge."

Local architect Walter Schamu can see the holders from his home. He said he was distraught to hear that they're coming down.

"The 20th century is leaving us," he said.

"To me, that is South Baltimore," Schamu added. "They act as a beacon for those who barrel around I-395. I always thought they should have been painted more boldly to show off their industrial character."

Each one is "an icon," agreed Richard Burns, a local architect who recently proposed that the Camden Yards football stadium be designed to play off the look of the gas holders. "It's a piece of sculpture."

Movable sculpture

The first cylindrical gas holder was designed by British engineer Samuel Clegg and built in London in 1816-17.

Baltimore's holders were built in horizontal sections that fit into each other, like a collapsible drinking cup. As a result of this telescoping design, roof and wall sections rise and fall as gas volume changes.

The moving parts enable employees to gauge gas output by observing the roof level. They also turn the gas holders into movable sculptures, a curiosity for commuters.

"It's an amazingly simple technology that has lasted more than a lifetime -- several lifetimes," Bazemore said.

Over the years, improvements in natural gas supply and storage have greatly reduced BGE's dependence on the holders.

Starting in the 1950s, pipes carried natural gas to Maryland from the Southwest, reducing the need for local gas manufacturing.

In the 1970s, BGE built liquefied natural gas tanks at Spring Gardens that don't move up and down but can hold more gas in far less space. The company left the old holders up for storage and to help in balancing the supply.

The three large holders can store 22 million standard cubic feet of natural gas -- less than 3 percent of the service area's daily needs.

By contrast, the three smaller white tanks that store liquefied natural gas can store 1 billion standard cubic feet of gas -- about 45 times the capacity of the gas holders.

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