Protecting Baltimore's history, buildings before they're gone with a gust of wind

March 20, 1998|By James D. Dilts

At the instant I first became aware of the cosmos we all infest I was sitting in my mother's lap and blinking at a great burst of lights, some of them red and others green, but most of them only the bright yellow of flaring gas. The time: the evening of Thursday, September 13, 1883, which was the day after my third birthday. The place: a ledge outside the second-story front windows of my father's cigar factory at 368 Baltimore Street, Baltimore, MD, USA, fenced off from space and disaster by a sign bearing the majestic legend: AUG. MENCKEN & BRO. The occasion: the third and last annual Summer Night's Carnival of the Order of Orioles, a society that adjourned sine die, with a thumping deficit, the very next morning."

-- H. L. Mencken, "Happy Days"

I HAVE shown many people the iron-front building from whicBaltimore's most famous writer took his first conscious look at his hometown. They include Margot Gayle, the well-known authority on cast-iron architecture, and members of the Society of Architectural Historians, which held its 50th annual meeting here last year. But when I looked for the building recently it was gone, the victim of the weather, neglect, ignorance, vandalism -- or all four. By the time I got there, workmen were smashing the iron columns with sledge hammers and loading the pieces onto a truck to haul to the scrap yard. They were having a rough time of it; cast-iron is hard, heavy stuff.

The 1876 building that briefly housed the Mencken Brothers "Metropolitan Cigar Manufactory" at 414 W. Baltimore St. (368 became 414 when the city's streets were renumbered in 1887) was the westernmost of a pair of historic four-story iron fronts. The adjacent building at 412 W. Baltimore St., dating from 1857, was Baltimore's oldest full iron front. Its brick side wall failed early on the morning of March 10, supposedly due to the combined action of wind and rain, and its iron front leaned out. After discussions with structural engineers and the owner, city housing officials condemned both it and the building next door. Their cast-iron facades were demolished with a wrecking ball.

These iron fronts should never have come down. They needed work, but they were not structurally unsound, according to an architect who recently went through them. Their owner, Victor J. Schenk, has declined to comment on their fate. City Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III was unaware that they were iron fronts when he approved their destruction. "They were presented to me as brick buildings," he said.

Supporting cast

The two iron fronts were to have been part of the restoration of the nearby Hippodrome Theatre. Under the plan, they were to be converted to a loading dock leading to the stage.

Martinez and Johnson of Washington are the Hippodrome project architects. "There was no indication the building was in danger of collapse or I wouldn't have been walking in there," said Gary Martinez, who toured 412 and 414 last month and saw them again in pieces last week. "There were no overt signs of stress in the exterior wall or of water damage." Said his partner, Tom Johnson, "It was almost as if it imploded."

While truck access to the theater will certainly become simpler now that the buildings are gone, the architects do not view the collapse as providential. "We see it as a real loss to the project," said Mr. Martinez. "The urbanistic value of the buildings was very important. This is as much about maintaining the urban fabric of the city as about creating a new center."

The double loss leaves nine complete iron-front buildings and about twice as many iron storefronts in a city that once had hundreds of such structures. It also represents the disappearance of part of our common history. Baltimore played a leading role in the production of iron-front buildings, the new construction technology based on metal and glass that spread nationwide during the last half of the 19th century and led directly to the steel-frame high-rise and the modern city.

Development took a major step forward in 1851 when this newspaper erected the Sun Iron Building at Baltimore and South streets. Designed by James Bogardus, it was the first major commercial application of his principles of iron construction. Bogardus was the American inventor of the cast-iron front and soon more iron-front buildings began to appear on Baltimore's downtown streets. Many were produced by the city's renowned Bartlett, Hayward foundry that later shipped entire building fronts and other major components to cities throughout the country and some points outside the United States.

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