Landmark disappeared from city's skyline Landmark: The Tower Building is no more. But in its heyday, as home to Maryland Casualty Co., it had a tower, and in the tower, a clock.

Way Back When

September 26, 1998|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The Tower Building, which stood in the 200 block of East Baltimore Street from 1912 until its lamentable destruction in 1986, was a graceful, clock-crowned confection that soared some 18 stories into the air and was a landmark on the city's horizon.

With its adjoining five-story main building, the complex, built by the Maryland Casualty Co., was home for years to lawyers, accountants, real estate brokers and the city's Bureau of Markets.

Designed by Otto Simonson and costing $300,000, the tower, The Sun predicted it would be "one of the handsomest in the South."

Construction began in 1911, and in December, under a headline that said "New Tower Building Soaring," The Sun reported that the structure "is being rapidly reared to a height that will shortly exceed in altitude any structure in Baltimore and thousands of interested pedestrians are daily watching its growth [and] despite its already lofty height, it is still going skyward."

Perhaps the building's most notable feature was its four-sided Seth Thomas clock, the second largest in the city behind the Bromo-Seltzer Tower clock across downtown.

With its 3/8 -inch thick double-frosted glass dials that measured 17 feet in diameter and 10-foot hands that made it visible from all over town, it was a timepiece that was revered by enthusiasts, who described it as being of great horologic significance.

The building opened to the public on Oct. 5, 1912, as "a throng estimated at between 5,000 and 6,000 persons," walked through its veined-marble lobby, rode its "plunger" elevators up to the top of the tower and then climbed up a two-story spiral staircase to the building's crow's nest.

"Looking southwest under favorable conditions, it is possible, with the aid of field glasses, to distinguish Washington's Monument in Washington," reported the newspaper.

Below the crow's nest was the clock room, then under that a two-story public observatory with wicker furniture set on Oriental rugs. The room was "fitted up for the accommodation of visitors to the tower, who will find writing tables supplied with stationery, souvenir postcards, etc.," reported The Sun.

On the building's ground floor, a pedestrian arcade linked Baltimore and Fayette streets and was lined with such shops and restaurants as the Royal Quick Lunch Room, Katz's Cleaners, Armetta's Barber Shop, a liquor store and, for a time, the offices of the Associated Press, often the source of elegant and creative nonnews-related hi-jinks.

When things got dull, reporters wishing to relieve the boredom of a shift called the phone booth at the corner of Baltimore Street and Guilford Avenue, hoping to snag a passerby.

Shouting into the ringing phone picked up by the unwary pedestrian, a reporter would shout, "Help! Help! I'm trapped in the gears of the clock. Call a policeman, save me. I'm locked in the tower!" and then watched bemused from the windows of the building as the unfortunate and panicky good Samaritan attempted to get the attention of the police.

In 1919, with business booming, Maryland Casualty outgrew the Tower Building and relocated to 40th Street, where it built a new headquarters building, also topped by a clock tower -- though not nearly as impressive as that of its former home. Today, the building is the Rotunda Shopping Center.

In the mid-1920s, newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst purchased the Tower Building to house his Baltimore News and Baltimore American newspapers. Though that plan proved impractical, Hearst owned the Tower Building until 1942, when it was sold to Karl F. Steinmann, a Baltimore attorney, for $500,000, and remained an active downtown address.

However, by 1969, with the hands of its clock permanently halted at 2: 43, its crow's nest cladding flapping in the wind, and flocks of pigeons winging their way in and out of its upper stories, the building looked like some faded concrete-and-steel Norma Desmond who had fallen on hard times.

By the 1980s, time was running out for the Tower Building. In 1985, a partnership headed by developer Bernard Manekin, chairman of the Manekin Corp., purchased the building for $2.53 million. It proposed razing the building and constructing a new office tower on the site.

"The building was in very bad shape physically and not salvageable," Manekin recalled from his Baltimore office the other day. In a nod to landmark preservationists as the wrecking ball began to swing, Manekin ordered that the clocks be spared and hinted that some day they might be incorporated in a new building. (The clocks are reportedly stored in the basement of the Maryland Casualty Building on 40th Street, waiting for a second life of usefulness.)

Walter Schamu, a Baltimore architect with a deep appreciation for the city's architectural past and present, said the Tower Building was such a part of the "collective downtown memory" that its destruction was a "terribly sad moment in the city's history."

By 1987, all traces of the building had vanished. No new building ever went up, and the site was transformed into a vest-pocket urban park. Earlier this year, Manekin Corp. sold the land to Allright Parking.

In what would be a farewell editorial to the beloved building in 1986, The Sun said:

"The building is a real landmark. Its Beaux Arts ornamentation, elaborate cornice, copper-clad roof and great clock have anchored the city skyline and won a place in the affections of Baltimoreans equal to that of the balancing Emerson [Bromo-Seltzer] Tower on the west of downtown, which the city sensitively saved.

"The Tower Building ... is no aesthetic masterpiece, but it is distinctive and pleasing to the eye. It has character. Affection for it would grow, not diminish, as bland modern offices rise above it."

Pub Date: 9/26/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.