Property owners undo the damage of urban 'Tin Men' Restoration removes landmark's cover-up

September 26, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

The "Tin Men" didn't just do houses.

While the smooth-talking aluminum siding salesmen in Barry Levinson's movie were smothering suburban bungalows in the 1960s, an equally tenacious breed of contractors was wreaking havoc on commercial buildings downtown.

These urban Tin Men convinced property owners that a new surface could make their buildings look modern while providing protection from the elements. What they did not mention was that their maintenance-free products invariably sapped all the charm and character from buildings.

But the cover-up is over.

Today the Tin Men are long gone, and savvy building owners are discovering it's not too late to undo the damage. Just as home renovators are scraping Formstone from rowhouses, commercial property owners are turning back the clock by peeling 1960s- and '70s-era skins off their buildings.

Owners of 222 St. Paul Place stripped metal panels off its base before turning it into the Tremont Plaza hotel. Buyers of the American Building on Baltimore Street found a cast-iron facade beneath the aggregate concrete surface they chipped away.

The latest example of architectural face-saving can be found at the northeast corner of Light and Lombard streets, where new owners just peeled the metal skin from a five-story structure dating from 1904.

After two months of restoration, they are the proud owners of Baltimore's newest landmark: a 92-year-old building that looks as if it escaped from a time warp. They're celebrating today with an open house from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Before the make-over, "it was the ugliest building alive," admits Mickey Miller Jr., who bought and renovated the building this year with partner Ira J. Miller.

"Now people are calling to thank us for cleaning up the neighborhood," Mickey Miller said. "It's never looked better."

The Millers, who are not related, head Miller Corporate Real Estate Services, a brokerage and consultancy. They will house their offices on the second floor and lease additional space to others.

The structure, called 31 Light Street, is the first one they have purchased and renovated, and it's already paid off handsomely.

The transformed building is 95 percent leased, even before construction was finished -- a figure that's almost unheard of in today's soft leasing market. And it's largely because of the combination of its prime location and new-old look.

East side never covered

Miller said he had an inkling of what the building would look like without its skin because the east side was never covered over. He also looked at old photos of Light Street that hinted at the building's original appearance. He and his partner weren't sure how much the metal cladding damaged the original skin. But, working with architect Amy Gould of Gould Architects and with Wilhelm Commercial Builders, they decided to take a chance and see.

When they removed the skin, they learned that much of the cornice and other protruding elements had been chipped off to make way for the flat metal skin. They used sheet metal to replicate the cornice at the top and a horizontal band above the first floor. Then they painted the exterior in three shades to pick up the colors of surrounding buildings -- terra cotta at the base, flesh tones above.

Another big change involved the windows. Before, they were little slits, like those in a prison. Now, they're back to the original size, stretching practically from floor to ceiling. Along with the high ceilings, the large windows make the interiors light and airy. The owners also added new mechanical systems and high-quality finishes that rival those of the newer office towers downtown.

Mickey Miller said the best part of the restoration is the building was in such poor shape before that no one minded anything they did.

"Nobody could say anything bad, because whatever we did was going to be an improvement," he explained. "It's really been fun, because everybody who walks by just goes, 'Wow, I can't believe this.' "

The result is also a breakthrough project for Amy Gould, who has headed her own firm since 1983. Usually, the job of a restoration architect is to preserve the look of an older building. In this case, she changed it for the better -- by undoing the work of others.

"We've restored a lot of buildings," she said, "but we've never had a transformation that was as dramatic visually as this."

Gould said she thought one reason for the popularity of metal cladding is that it was a way for owners of older properties to compete with the new office buildings that were rising downtown in the 1960s and 1970s.

With the opening of Mies van der Rohe's One Charles Center and other modern office buildings in the 1960s, she said, gleaming glass and metal buildings were in vogue -- as symbols of a new effort to rejuvenate the city.

Making old seem new

Adding a metal skin over masonry was a way for owners of older buildings to make those structures seem new -- even though what they often got was a bad imitation of Mies-ian modernism.

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