Old ice house is hotbed of artistic work Studio: Artisans have taken over a stone building in Baltimore as a site to produce everything from doors to movie sets.

May 11, 1998|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

A second growth of tiny new industries turning out goods you'll never see in a suburban mall is sprouting from the stubble of Baltimore's sooty old factories and foundries.

A stone building at 330 W. 23rd St., off Howard Street, has become a banging and humming beehive dedicated to the work of artisans. It is a prime example of the creative reuse of buildings in Baltimore's smoke-stained industrial districts, where the rent is cheap and studios are large.

The specialized customer list of the inhabitants is often downright amazing.

The 23rd Street building, built in 1905 as an ice house and formerly owned by American Ice Co., is the place where a set of doors for Cal Ripken Jr.'s cabana was milled. The steel swords for the Broadway musical "The Scarlet Pimpernel" came from a forge there, as did the set for singer Michael Bolton's act.

"The jobs come in and out so fast I can't remember them all," says metal fabricator-designer John Gutierrez, who created Bolton's set. Next on his agenda is a set of informational pylons for the Jefferson Memorial in Washington.

Between jobs, he makes fancy metal console tables with sleek wood tops that are sold through some of the country's best decorators.

"The artisan has claimed the rusted industrial belt of Baltimore," Gutierrez said of the new occupants of sites such as the old textile-spinning buildings in Hampden and Woodberry, or a former broom factory in Canton.

The 23rd Street building has chunky stone walls that were useful for insulating the huge ice blocks once stored there. Today, they house saws, drill presses, anvils and other heavy equipment used to make furniture, stage sets, steel cabinets and millwork.

The sparks scatter on days when metalsmith Lewis Shaw is shaping the edge of a sword -- the weapon destined for fights where nobody really gets hurt.

"I have every reason to believe my swords will be on network TV," said Shaw, whose metalwork is among the props for Broadway's "Pimpernel." The show was recently nominated for a Tony award.

Shaw, who teaches acting and Shakespeare at Baltimore's School for the Arts, is a specialist in the theatrical swordplay seen in "Romeo and Juliet," "Macbeth" and the Bard's "Henry" plays.

He is negotiating with Walt Disney Co. for swords for its production of "Aida," with a score not by Verdi, but Elton John. He also made the swords that will be used by "pirates" on Disney's cruise ship, which is scheduled to begin passenger runs in July.

Beside the ice house, other locations around Baltimore where industrial artists and fine artists have studio-workshops include former garment-manufacturing buildings in the 1600 block of Guilford Ave., the old Crown Cork & Seal building in Highlandtown, and the former Potthast Brothers building on Wicomico Street, where fine reproduction furniture was made until the 1960s.

On 23rd Street, woodwright Thomas Brown's whirling saws and lathes turn out wares destined for some of the building's more storied clients and addresses: the cabana for Ripken's home in Baltimore County; wood trim for the Winterthur Museum in Delaware; a privy door for Homewood Mansion on Charles Street; and curved cornices for the Watergate and a portico for the Blair House, both in Washington.

The West 23rd group -- all independent contractors -- collectively rent the ice house's ground floor. Most relocated there when they lost their old quarters in the 1100 block of S. Howard St. to the Ravens stadium project.

Gutierrez moved there after the 1995 Clipper Mill Park fire in Woodberry scorched the structure where he had been working.

Years ago, furniture maker Stephen Perrin gave up his job as an ad agency art director to design and make tables, chairs and chests he sells to select customers.

"This is what I always wanted to do. I don't make the things that people need. I make the things that people want," Perrin said. "There are those who will pay for a lingerie chest made of bird's-eye maple."

Down a sawdust-strewn passage is the work space of stringed musical instrument maker James Cox, a Baltimorean known for his violins, cellos, guitars, violas and viola da gambas.

"We operate here under a slush fund of time," said Cox, who

notes that the 23rd Street woodworkers often help each other -- answering phones, sharing equipment and listening to each other's stories.

Not every artisan's work produced at the ice house is as enduring as the violins that Cox makes.

David Beach, formerly the Mechanic Theatre's operations chief, has a movie set-building business called Art Department Services. He's made sets for "Enemy of the State," "Washington Square," "For Richer or Poorer" and John Waters' new production, "Pecker."

"If you watch one of the movies we did and never think about the scenery, we did it right. If your eye is happy, we got it right," said Beach.

His attitude about his work is realistic. "We do art for money. It's art with a small letter a."

While his version of art is viewed by thousands of movie patrons, it doesn't enjoy the permanence of some of his fellow workers' output. When a film is complete, the set is broken up.

"I build the world's most expensive Dumpster food," Beach said.

Pub Date: 5/11/98

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