Bank to open first city branch in 'absolute jewel' of building Chevy Chase FSB to lease Alex. Brown's former headquarters

March 12, 1997|By Kevin L. McQuaid | Kevin L. McQuaid,SUN STAFF

Chevy Chase Bank FSB will breathe new life into one of the city's most historic buildings by October, when it opens its first city branch in Alex. Brown Inc.'s former headquarters on Baltimore Street.

In taking over the building at Baltimore and Calvert streets, Chevy Chase hopes to restore the faded, two-story brick and stone structure -- one of the few downtown buildings to survive the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 -- to its original prominence.

"It's one of the most important banking buildings in America," said B. F. Saul II, Chevy Chase's founder and chairman. "It's an absolute jewel."

Sprucing up the 96-year-old building won't be cheap, though. Although exact figures haven't been determined, it is estimated Chevy Chase will have to spend roughly $1 million to refurbish 135 E. Baltimore St.'s stained-glass dome, marble floors, English oak paneling, original balconies and plaster work.

The savings bank -- headquartered in Chevy Chase -- also plans to install a new vault, teller stations, offices for private banking and commercial lending and heating and air conditioning units. It also will have to make certain the building meets building code and Americans With Disabilities Act requirements.

"We intend to touch it with the gentlest hands possible," said Walter Schamu, president of SMDA Architects of Baltimore, which is designing the renovations. "We plan to replicate as much of the original building as we can, and give it another 100 years of life. It's really a landmark structure."

The building's exterior -- including its imposing brown metal doors -- will be cleaned but not significantly altered, despite chips in its stone columns and faded paint coating the steel bars on its windows. Most of the dents date to the fire, and will remain as a testament to its resilience, Schamu said.

Although gone, Alex. Brown won't be forgotten. As part of the renovation, Saul said, Chevy Chase plans to include a room in the building devoted to memorabilia from the nation's oldest investment house. The room likely will be open to the public.

Alex. Brown, founded in 1800, moved out of the 15,000-square-foot building that had been its nominal headquarters several weeks ago as part of a consolidation into a 30-story skyscraper two blocks away. The new Alex. Brown Building, completed five years ago at a cost of $90 million, is 30 times the size of 135 E. Baltimore St.

Under a lease signed with owner Brown Realty Co., a group of founder Alexander Brown's descendants, Chevy Chase has committed to 135 E. Baltimore St. through 2017, and has options through 2037.

The lease is expected to cost Chevy Chase about $4.8 million, based on market rates.

"This met all of our objectives," said Jack "Jay" Griswold, a Brown Realty Co. partner and former Alex. Brown executive. He is currently a managing director of local investment firm Armada Partners and chairman of the Maryland Historical Society.

"For the family, we did not want a Chinese restaurant or something like that that was not in concert with Alex. Brown's history," said Griswold, whose family members still work at Alex. Brown.

"We think it's a win for the city and a win for the building. It's a question of preserving a building that should be preserved."

Chevy Chase, which operates 118 branches and has assets of $6.7 billion, may also spark renewed life in the surrounding block from other out-of-town businesses.

For instance, Camp Hill, Pa.-based Rite Aid Corp. has purchased two former Alex. Brown buildings adjacent to 135 E. Baltimore St., where it plans to relocate and expand a nearby store, and Promus Hotels Corp. of Memphis is eyeing the abandoned Southern Hotel for a possible Embassy Suites.

In both the Rite Aid and Promus cases, the original structures would be preserved.

"We've been concentrating on building a solid branch network in the Washington, D.C., area and in Howard and Anne Arundel counties," said Saul, who founded Chevy Chase in 1969. "But when this opportunity came along, it seemed like a natural."

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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