Wrong architect? Clues build up Davidge: The long-held belief that the 1812 building was designed by a Baltimorean, Robert Cary Long Sr., is being challenged.

Urban Landscape

November 14, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

FOR MORE than 150 years, scholars at the University of Maryland have accepted the notion that the oldest building on the downtown Baltimore campus, Davidge Hall, was designed by a Baltimorean, Robert Cary Long Sr.

But two Albany, N.Y.-based architects who were hired this year to prepare a preservation plan for the 1812 building say they have uncovered information that suggests Long wasn't the architect.

During a recent presentation on campus, architects John G. Waite and Clay Palazzo said their research indicates that Davidge may have been designed by the French architect Maximilian Godefroy and that Long may have been merely the builder.

The presentation came as something of a bombshell to university officials, who want to restore the landmark at 522 W. Lombard St. as the centerpiece of a health sciences museum complex on campus.

It has triggered a new debate about the oldest medical school building in continuous use in the nation. But it ultimately could help elevate the building in the eyes of architectural historians, since Godefroy was more highly regarded than Long.

"There is no question that Long built the building," Palazzo said. "But was he the architect? If you look objectively at all the information available, there is a question whether Long really had much to do with the design."

Named after John B. Davidge, founder and first dean of the University of Maryland, Davidge Hall was constructed to house the university's fledgling medical college at a time when Americans were just starting to overcome the superstitions and folklore that pervaded the medical profession.

To dignify the structure -- and, by extension, the medical profession -- the designer borrowed classic forms from ancient Greece and Rome. Its low, domed roof was modeled after the Pantheon's in Rome. Its south portico echoed the geometry of the Parthenon in Athens.

One of its most notable features is the superimposition of one assembly hall, Anatomical Hall, over another, Chemical Hall.

Waite and Palazzo, who are both with John G. Waite Associates, researched the building's history while preparing their restoration plan. They say that although financial records clearly indicate Long was the contractor, documents pertaining to the architectural commission could not be found.

Waite said the first reference to Long as the architect of Davidge Hall came in an 1823 document known as the Poppleton Map. Waite described Long as a lumber merchant and builder who came to Baltimore in 1780 and "doesn't call himself an architect until the early 1800s." Long's local projects include rowhouses on Hamilton Street and the Peale Museum on Holliday Street.

While researching the building's history, Waite and Palazzo came upon information that linked the building to Godefroy, designer of First Unitarian Church at Franklin and Charles streets and the Battle Monument on Calvert Street.

For example, Godefroy's father-in-law was John Crawford, a medical professor and member of the group that commissioned Davidge Hall. There is also correspondence between Godefroy and architect Benjamin Latrobe about a Latrobe-designed medical building for the University of Pennsylvania that was a direct antecedent of Davidge, with one assembly hall atop another.

Waite said that correspondence is a clue that Godefroy could have been the architect. Godefroy even borrowed drawings of the Pennsylvania building from Latrobe, Waite said, "so I think that's probably how the [Maryland] building came to be designed."

Waite said the Davidge design seems consistent with the rest of Godefroy's work but that Long "didn't do anything this complicated, this well finished, before or after" Davidge.

Waite will present his firm's findings in a report to the university this month. Whoever the architect was, he said, he strongly believes that the building should be designated a national historic landmark.

"This is a world-class building because of its architectural significance, its historical significance and because it has survived intact," Waite said. "It really is a treasure for Baltimore.

Administrators want to restore Davidge for continued use in medical education and as a building that can be promoted as a historical attraction. The work could cost several million dollars.

Michael Trostel, a Baltimore architect who guided an earlier restoration, said he is skeptical about Waite's observations.

"I think the architectural eye that designed the First Unitarian Church would never had done Davidge Hall," Trostel said. "It [Davidge] is a much simpler architectural expression."

Historians may never know the whole story, said UM architect Calvin Correll. "This is one of those things that people are going to talk about for a long time. It's never really going to be settled."

Pub Date: 11/14/96

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