A towering concept: Turn Bromo building to housing

City seeks proposals for 12 apartments

July 21, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Here are some of the perks of renting an apartment in the 300-foot Bromo Seltzer clock tower near Camden Yards.

You could catch Orioles games out the bedroom window. You could set your watch by looking up at a clock face larger than Big Ben's. And if you got a hangover, the name of your remedy would be printed in letters lighted at night by spotlights.

Baltimore officials announced yesterday that they plan to convert the landmark tower, built in 1911 as an advertisement for the head and stomach-ache medicine, into about 12 apartments with panoramic views of downtown.

Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said the city will send out requests in 30 days asking developers to submit proposals describing how they would preserve the city-owned building and remake its15 floors of offices into rental units.

A city arts agency called the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Arts and Culture, which has offices on 12 floors, would be moved to another location that has not been determined, Henson said.

"I can imagine it being a funky place to live," he said. "From absolutely every floor, you would have great views of the downtown."

The move to convert the medieval-style tower -- whose 16-foot-wide clocks ringed by the words BROMO SELTZER are recognizable to baseball fans across the country -- into apartments is part of a city effort to boost the downtown economy by converting as many old buildings into apartments as possible.

Henson said developers are planning to create 1,600 apartments in nine buildings nearby on the west side of downtown, including 173 units in the former Hecht's department store on Howard Street and 151 above the Redwood Towers on Redwood Street.

Developers say they are intrigued by the challenges of renovating the Bromo Seltzer building. It has a colorful history and unusually small floors -- each only 30 feet by 30 feet, with a pair of elevators and a stairwell running through its center.

"It's really a major landmark in the history of America's commercial architecture," said William Pencek, deputy director of the Maryland Historic Trust. "And anyone from anywhere in America who watches any televised Orioles games associates its image with Baltimore."

Capt. Isaac E. Emerson, the inventor of Bromo Seltzer, built the tower in 1911 as part of his drug company's eight-story factory. He designed the clock and parapet after the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy.

At one time, the tower was the tallest building in Baltimore. Until 1936, it boasted a revolving, 51-foot-high blue bottle on its pinnacle decorated with 500 lights that at night could be seen as far away as the Eastern Shore. Ships often used it to guide them into Baltimore Harbor.

After the company that makes Bromo Seltzer moved to Pennsylvania in 1967, the building was donated to the city, which renamed it the Baltimore Arts Tower.

There are some potential disadvantages to living in the clock tower.

Next door is the city's John F. Steadman fire station, from which trucks and ambulances screamed out on 12,446 emergency calls last year, according to city statistics.

"Obviously, soundproofing would have to be considered," said Fire Department Battalion Chief Hector Torres. "But then again, the residents would be some of the safest people in the city, with the fire department next door."

J. Joseph Clark, owner of the Clark Enterprises development company that is planning to build a 267-room hotel nearby at One Light Street, said his company would "absolutely" be interested in bidding on the project.

"The market for downtown housing is strong, and there is lots of demand from the nearby University of Maryland professional schools," said Clark.

Proposals will be due in about four months, after which the city will pick a developer to renovate the building, city officials said.

David Hillman, chief executive of the Virginia-based Southern Management Corp. that has renovated more than 3,000 apartments in Baltimore, said: "This project could be a lot of fun. I'll bet you could get people with eclectic tastes who would be interested in loft-style apartments there."

Some of the 12 city arts agency employees who now enjoy views of Camden Yards out their windows had mixed reactions yesterday to the prospect of moving out and having their offices converted into apartments.

"I had no idea this was happening," said Clair Segel, director of the agency. "I'm sure we'll be talking to the mayor's office about it."

Rowland W. Fontz, the 73-year-old master horologist who maintains the 88-year-old Seth Thomas clock, has a private office on the 15th floor with a large wooden desk and a chandelier.

He led a visitor up a series of narrow staircases into the clock's mechanical room, which is walled by four glass clock faces and has a pendulum hanging through a slit in the floor and gears the size of hubcaps.

From there he led up again through blackness into a medieval-looking room with arrow slits as windows.

Heaving his shoulder against a heavy metal door, he burst out into hazy sunshine on the building's parapet. A gray arm of the Inner Harbor spread to the east. Eutaw Street ran past the now-abandoned Hippodrome Theater to the north. To the west rose the gold-colored dome of the B & O Railroad Museum.

"I guess the building would be appealing for apartments, if it were upgraded a bit," he said. "But I haven't told the city yet that I'm thinking of giving the clock a voice, so that it will ring out every hour."

He laughed, adding, "People who would live here would certainly have no excuse for being late."

Pub Date: 7/21/99

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