Bank's past and future Renovation: A 1901 landmark has been retored to its former glory, adapted for modern times.

October 22, 1997|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

In an age when most banks are gearing up for the electronic future as it's likely to unfold in Bill Gates' cyberspace, Baltimore's newest financial institution looks more like a scene out of Charles Dickens' London.

When Chevy Chase Bank opens its first Baltimore-area branch Nov. 12, tellers will greet customers from inside an old-time banking cage, while managers toil by lamplight at roll-top desks.

The building has the sort of grandeur that hasn't been seen in decades: Floors of marble from the same Italian quarry where Michelangelo got his stone. Damask-covered walls. English oak cabinetry. A 40-foot-high ceiling with a Tiffany glass dome.

This homage to the past has been fashioned inside the former headquarters of Alex. Brown & Sons, a 1901 landmark at 135 E. Baltimore St. The building became vacant when Alex. Brown employees moved to a nearby high-rise earlier this year, and Chevy Chase wasted no time signing a long-term lease.

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

Completed in 1901 and expanded in 1905, the building is one of the few downtown that survived the Great Fire of 1904. Legend has it that when the fire began, Alexander Brown, grandson of the founder, sat on the roof of the building and dared the flames to come closer. Soon afterward, the winds suddenly shifted and the building was spared.

In 1929, when depositors lined up outside the front door to withdraw their savings after the stock market crashed, Alexander Brown went out and assured them that their deposits were safe. Because the family had so much credibility, depositors dispersed quietly, and there was no run on the bank.

"I don't know that there's any other building in Baltimore that people love more," said Walter Schamu, president of SMDA Architects, the local firm in charge of the restoration.

No easy task

But restoring the Alex. Brown building was no easy feat for Schamu and his collaborators, the interior design team of Henry Johnson and Robert Berman. Ilex Construction & Development Inc. was the general contractor as well as the firm responsible for the elaborate cabinetry, millwork and furnishings.

Although the building was constructed as a public bank, it had not served that purpose for decades. When the Banking Act of 1933 required that public banks be separate from private investment brokerages, Alex. Brown chose to become a private brokerage and turned the banking floor into office space. The wooden tellers' cage in the middle was removed to give the brokers more work space.

Schamu said the design team began by consulting the original building plans, by Parker and Thomas, which showed the location of the lost tellers' cage and other fixtures.

"Fortunately, we could find the original drawings and photographs. From them, we tried to re-create what was actually here and adapt it to Chevy Chase's needs. What we've done, basically, is turn a bank into a bank. Our goal was: if you walk in the front door, it should look pretty much the way it did when the building first opened."

The main banking room set the tone for the work.

"It's a marble room, basically -- a fabulous cube," Johnson said.

But the design team didn't want the building to look brand new, Johnson added.

"The last thing we wanted is a new, tarted-up kid on the block," he said. "It wasn't a new building. It is an old building. Every inch of the building was handled with the gentlest touch."


"It all goes back to Mr. Saul's very healthy respect for the building," he continued. "When you look around the area, everything is being sort of brutalized. There's a concrete parking garage nearing completion down the street. I thought the world had slowed down from some of that, but they just keep tearing buildings down. I think it's interesting that the newest business in the city chose to respect the past, rather than eradicate it."

Alex. Brown, founded in 1800 and now owned by Bankers Trust New York Corp., moved out of the 15,000-square-foot building that had been its longtime headquar- ters as part of a consolidation of its local offices into a 30-story skyscraper two blocks away. The Baltimore Street building is owned by descendants of the Brown family.

Although Chevy Chase has not disclosed figures, the cost of restoring the shell and modifying it for its new use has been estimated at roughly $1 million. That includes installing a new vault, teller stations, offices for private banking and commercial lending, and new mechanical systems.

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