Critical Mass Urban editing: In with the old, and out with it

Architecture.

December 29, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

The season of joy has passed, and the more somber season of review is upon us. In arts and entertainment, 1996 was marked by many a going (Horn & Horn lunchroom, Shakespeare on Wheels, the announcement of David Zinman's departure) and an important staying (the Lucas Collection). Bad guys (Jack Valenti with his Hollywood-friendly TV ratings system) were as likely to make news as angels (John Travolta in "Michael"), and personalities (the Michael Jackson marriage saga) got more attention than performances (Alanis Morissette's best-selling album). Here's a closer look at the year's highlights and low lights, courtesy of The Sun's critics.

Two contrasting visions of the New Baltimore emerged in 1996, both compliments of the Baltimore City Life Museums.

The first was of a city that is immensely proud of its past, as it nears its 200th anniversary: The opening last April of the Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center, with its magnificently restored cast-iron facade providing a new centerpiece for the City Life campus, showed how much the past can enrich the present. Its completion was the architectural highlight of the year and the ideal bicentennial gift from the city to itself.

The second vision was of a city that couldn't be bothered to think about its past, much less save it. It came last month when city-hired crews began demolishing the ornate Horn & Horn lunchroom on Baltimore Street and six nearby buildings to make way for a municipal garage. The City Life Museums asked the Schmoke administration to halt demolition long enough for the Horn & Horn facade to be salvaged for reconstruction, but it never happened.

Those two events reflect such different points of view about architecture and preservation that it's hard to believe they took place in the same city. But they didn't occur in isolation.

Again and again in 1996, vexing issues involving the fate of Baltimore's built heritage dominated the architectural scene, as designers were asked to choose between saving the past and wiping it away.

The year brought the preservation of a record number of buildings in central Maryland. Projects ranged from pure restorations, such as the Maryland Club, to imaginative re-creations, such as the Mount Washington Mill's reincarnation as an upscale commercial center.

Other buildings now firmly in the "saved" category include: the Gallagher Mansion, Old Otterbein Church, Admiral Fell Inn, McKim Center Meeting House, Druid Hill Avenue YMCA, Scanlan & Rosen law offices, former Milkmak candy factory and Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry.

But 1996 also brought record demolition. Chesapeake Cadillac's art deco showroom, the former city school administration headquarters, and seven other buildings in the old Goucher College historic district were reduced to rubble to make way for a grocery.

The Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. began dismantling Gas Holder No. 8, a South Baltimore landmark. Developer Howard Brown bulldozed the 1767 Samuel Owings House. And to make way for a new lower school, Boys' Latin knocked down the former Alexander Cochran residence, one of Maryland's most significant works of early Modern architecture.

Change as editing

What is one to make of these conflicting developments? Perhaps one helpful way to view the changes is to compare them to the editing process for a book or magazine. In many respects, a city is a three-dimensional text that is constantly being altered by all sorts of "urban editors" with competing agendas.

By far the most complicated work of urban editing this year was the Blaustein building on Museum Row, by Peterson and Brickbauer and others. The designers not only saved the facade from the old G. Fava Fruit Co. building, but re-erected it in a new configuration on a different site.

In any other year, Mount Washington Mill might have taken the prize for radical urban editing. But in converting the old nuts and bolts factory to a shopping and office center, developer Sam Himmelrich and his designers also preserved its industrial character.

A big surprise was the Miller Building at 31 Light St., a nondescript structure that was taken back to its 1904 appearance when new owners peeled off an ugly metal skin added in the 1970s.

Brown and Craig explored new directions in Afro-centric architecture in its $4 million make-over of the Avenue Market in West Baltimore. AIDS researcher Robert Gallo and others gained impressive new quarters inside the Medical Biotechnology Center on Lombard Street.

The Johns Hopkins Hospital worked wonders in restoring portions of the historic Marburg and Wilmer buildings, while Agora Inc. rescued the old Ross Winans mansion and Christian Science Reading Room in Mount Vernon.

Criteria for deletion

The "deletion" side of urban editing must be judged differently. Sometimes areas are enhanced when bad buildings, like rotten teeth, are extracted. In other cases, communities can be devastated when too much is removed.

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