Selfless savior of lost buildings

URBAN LANDSCAPE

Architect: Michael Frederick Trostel's primary goal was to restore landmarks to their original design, forgoing reinterpretation and acclaim.

February 25, 1999|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

AS IF MARYLAND weren't losing enough historic buildings this winter, now it has lost one of the few people who really knew how to save them.

Michael Frederick Trostel, who died of cancer this month at age 67, was the most selfless sort of architect.

He wasn't known for designing buildings from scratch. He worked primarily to save buildings designed by others.

He didn't want the limelight. His hope was that when he completed a restoration, no one would be able to tell he had been there in the first place.

The roster of buildings that Trostel restored or adapted for reuse includes the oldest structure in Maryland, the Third Haven Meeting House in Easton (1682-1684); the oldest surviving residence in Fells Point, the Robert Long House (1765); and the first medical school building in the United States, Davidge Hall (1812), on the University of Maryland campus in Baltimore.

He helped restore more than 40 historically and architecturally significant buildings in Maryland during a 41-year career. His specialty was saving buildings that no one else would take on, long-forgotten landmarks that aren't on the beaten path and take years to restore, if funds can be found.

In many cases, his involvement made the difference between a building being saved or lost forever.

At Third Haven Meeting House, the wood foundation was so infested with termites the owners had to jack up the building, pour a concrete slab to separate the wood from the ground, and replace or repair rotted beams and posts. Some posts that had been eaten away were bored out and filled with epoxy, then reclad with the original veneer so the new material wouldn't show.

Trostel's approach was considerably different from that of many architects, for whom design is an expression of ego. They go into architecture to put their mark on the world -- like Howard Roark in "The Fountainhead."

That wasn't what drove Michael Trostel. He believed it was just as important to save the best work of previous generations.

Romaine Somerville, executive director of the Preservation Society in Baltimore, said Trostel's strength was in restoring buildings without changing their character.

"We're living in an age when a lot of architecture is nothing but self-expression, and it becomes rather shallow, whereas he wanted to reinforce the best of other ages and make sure that it's there for the future."

A great need exists for such an approach, Somerville said. "We don't want to lose the best that went before us, and we don't want it `reinterpreted.' He did his best to keep it in the spirit in which it was built. He never imposed his personality on his work."

He was practical and optimistic about preservation, said his business partner, W. Peter Pearre. "He always had a vision and saw hope in a building and was able to convince his clients that something was worth saving."

At the same time, "he firmly believed that you have to do the research before you do the planning," Pearre said.

A longtime Bolton Hill resident, Trostel earned bachelor's and master's degrees in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and began his career in 1958 at Taylor & Fisher in Baltimore. In 1981, he launched his firm, now known as Trostel and Pearre, Architects. Pearre, who worked with him for the past 11 years and shares his commitment to preservation, will carry on the firm's work.

In the end, perhaps ironically, this most invisible of architects received more awards and acclaim than most architects do -- including the 1992 Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But perhaps his greatest delight came simply in seeing a project through to completion.

"When you see [a building] in its sad condition and it suddenly emerges," he said after the restoration of Old St. Paul's Church in Baltimore, "it's worth all the effort."

Knowing that he helped save Maryland history was reward enough for Michael Trostel. Maryland is much the richer for it.

Minn. architect-author to open lecture series

Sarah Susanka, a Minnesota-based architect who wrote "The Not So Big House" and whose firm designed Life magazine's 1999 Dream House, will discuss her view of residential design during a lecture at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Tickets are $12 per person ($8 for seniors and students with identification).

Susanka is the first speaker in the spring lecture series sponsored by the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Other speakers are Brian MacKay-Lyons, March 17; James Polshek, April 7; and Beatriz Colomina, April 21. Information: 410-625-2585.

Sun staff writer Frederick N. Rasmussen contributed to this column.

Pub Date: 2/25/99

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