Marking the Great Fire of 1904 Preservation: The annual fire ball next month will commemorate recovery from the blaze and raise funds to restore the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion in Mount Vernon.

Urban Landscape

February 27, 1997|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

IT'S BILLED as the "hottest ticket in town," but it's also one of Baltimore's most important preservation events.

The Great Fire Ball is a black-tie gala held every year to commemorate Baltimore's rebirth from the Great Fire of 1904, which destroyed much of the downtown business district.

Set this year at 9 p.m. March 8, the event is also the primary fund-raiser for the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion at 11 W. Mount Vernon Place, the largest and most expensive townhouse constructed in Baltimore.

The historic mansion is actually three large residences that were combined in the 1800s. Containing 40 rooms, 16 fireplaces and 100 windows, it hasn't been significantly upgraded for decades.

The Engineering Society of Baltimore, a group that was instrumental in rebuilding the city after the fire, bought the mansion in 1962 for use as its headquarters. Today, the society consists of many different professionals, not just engineers. The mansion draws more than 40,000 people a year who use its rooms for professional, educational, civic and social causes.

The ball is sponsored by the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion Endowment Fund, a charitable organization founded in 1992 to preserve the mansion, where the event will be held.

This is the third year that the endowment fund has held the fire ball, but the first year that preservationists have known exactly what it will cost to restore and upgrade the landmark.

In 1995, officers of the endowment fund hired the architectural firm of Kann & Associates to complete a "historic structures report" that spells out the improvements needed.

"Beyond the public face of this magnificent structure, there are serious challenges and issues regarding life safety, fire and accessibility code requirements, access through the facilities by both the public and service personnel, and antiquated and inefficient mechanical and electrical systems," Kann's report states.

Other problems include a "noticeably deteriorating" front facade, aging interior finishes and furnishings, a broken elevator and inadequate kitchen facilities.

Kann outlined a two-phase campaign with an estimated total cost of $5.25 million, and the charitable group is trying to raise that amount. Its "heritage campaign" already has raised $300,000, including a $40,000 grant from the Maryland Historical Trust.

The oldest section of the mansion dates from 1853. It was purchased in 1872 by B&O Railroad President John W. Garrett, who gave it to his son Robert as a wedding present. In 1884, Robert Garrett and his wife, Mary, bought the building next door and combined the two. Architect Stanford White redesigned the interior, and Louis Comfort Tiffany created stained-glass windows.

Robert Garrett died in 1896. Four years later, his widow married his physician, Henry Barton Jacobs. They bought 7 Mount Vernon Place and hired John Russell Pope to design a ballroom, marble hall and library.

According to architect Donald Kann, the $1.5 million first phase of improvements is designed to stabilize the building and address short-term needs. Proposed work includes repair of the loose sandstone on the front facade, some upgrading of mechanical and electrical systems, and enclosing the rear courtyard.

The $3.76 million second phase is designed to provide long-term improvements that will make the mansion more attractive and functional as a meeting center. Work would include complete restoration of the front facade, additional mechanical and electrical work, expansion of the kitchen and restoration of key interior spaces.

The architects have proposed that the mansion's rear courtyard be rearranged to provide passageways leading to rooms. The new configuration would increase the number of rooms that could be used simultaneously, and that change would help generate income for the mansion.

The primary goal of the restoration effort, Kann said, is to make the mansion accessible to more people than ever without compromising its architectural integrity.

"There are very few privately owned mansions of this type on the East Coast -- maybe half a dozen whose owners are trying to restore them for public use," he said. "It's a big undertaking. And it fits in with the newfound energy in Mount Vernon."

Tickets for the fire ball cost $95 per person, of which $50 is tax deductible. To reserve tickets, call the fund at (410) 539-6914.

Michael Szimanski, chairman of the ball, said that the group hopes to raise enough money to complete the first phase of work by the end of the year, and that the rest will be finished as funds allow.

Pub Date: 2/27/97

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