Restoring without breaking the bank Architecture: Seeking new offices, Scanlan & Rosen P.A. opted to redo an old bank downtown. In the process, they uncovered forgotten architectural excitement -- and saved money.

August 25, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

By any standard, the French Renaissance-style office building at 26 South St. would have to be considered one of the safest places in Baltimore.

Behind the building's limestone and granite facade are three walk-in vaults, one safe and eight "lock boxes" -- remnants from the days when it housed one of the city's leading commercial banks.

They were too heavy to remove when partners of the law firm Scanlan & Rosen P.A. bought the building in 1994. So the new owners just converted them to alternative uses, including a law library and a sauna.

"We had to get a safecracker to open the ones that were locked," said attorney Marc Rosen, who oversaw much of the work. But "we had no desire to get rid of them. They're part of the building."

The owners may soon need the safes for another use: To keep all the awards they've won for restoring the 1901 landmark. Over the last six months, the Scanlan & Rosen headquarters has become the most-honored building in Baltimore, receiving four prestigious awards for design and restoration.

Honors came earlier this year from the American Society of Interior Designers, the National Association of Home Builders, and Baltimore Heritage, a local preservation advocacy group.

This month, the building received a national award from the American Bar Association's ABA Journal, which named it the best attorney's office in the U.S. involving historic preservation.

Not too shabby for a 3-year-old firm that never even owned a building before. It's a credit, too, to a talented design and construction team that recognized what a gem it had and proceeded with caution -- yet didn't play it too safe.

The problem

The restoration of 26 South St. is part of a local trend in which history-conscious developers are buying older downtown buildings at bargain prices and restoring them for contemporary use.

What makes the Scanlan & Rosen building stand out is the amount of original detail that was still inside the building, both hidden and preserved by years of "remuddling." Only by stripping away layers and layers of crud did the owners reveal the gem that was underneath.

Designed by E. Francis Baldwin and Josias Pennington, the building was constructed as the home of the Baltimore Commercial Bank. The bankers spared no expense to make a statement about the strength of their institution, with an arched entrance, bronze doors and Palladian-style windows. The interior was equally grand, a single banking room with a 40-foot-high coffered ceiling covered with plaster rosettes and other ornamentation.

But over the years the palatial banking hall lost much of its luster, as it became a branch of Union Trust Bank and then Signet Bank. A concrete block wall was built to separate the front from the back, turning half the space into a giant janitor's closet. In the 1950s, an acoustical-tile drop ceiling was added, making the space appear even smaller.

Partners Marc Rosen and Alfred Scanlan Jr. previously had rented offices around the corner on Redwood Street. They wanted to buy a building that would give their law practice room to grow and still be close to both the courts and the Inner Harbor.

A Signet customer, Rosen was familiar with the South Street building and tracked it after Signet closed it in 1990. He didn't give up until he and Scanlan had a contract to buy it for $175,000 -- less than many new houses cost in the suburbs.

Given the ceiling's height, the new owners may have been tempted to transform the space beyond recognition. They received suggestions for adding everything from a mezzanine or balcony to three new floors of office space under the 40-foot ceiling.

That may have been a reasonable plan if there were nothing to save. But as they began clearing out the building, they discovered that much of its original detail was still intact.

Taking down the drop ceiling, for example, they found six brass chandeliers still hanging from the original ceiling, perfectly intact. The plaster ornamentation at ceiling level was in pristine condition as well.

Behind the concrete block wall, they discovered that the banking hall was twice as deep as they first had thought. At the rear they found private offices with fireplaces and mahogany paneling. Removing glued-down carpeting, they exposed marble floors.

Architect Richard Schaefer, the head of Apollo Design in Baltimore, said he knew all along that the building would be a treasure. "All you had to do was look at the exterior."

Schaefer and partner Sharon Miller recommended that the owners not obscure the original detail by trying to add floors. They argued that the best solution would be to restore and reveal the original interior as much as possible, while adding new mechanical systems.

Fortunately, the owners agreed.

"Their whole approach was one of restraint," Schaefer said. "They realized what they had and that it needed a gentle touch."

The renewal plan

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