Taking it from the top

Renovation: Challenge of turning the Bromo Seltzer tower into apartments could make an architect queasy. But the city's view is that it's worth a shot.

July 26, 1999|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

He may have been a genius, but Isaac Emerson was not a particularly practical man.

Emerson, a chemist, made a fortune by developing the headache remedy Bromo Seltzer, which he named after Mount Bromo in Java. He promoted his invention in downtown Baltimore by building a replica of the Palazzo Vecchio, a 13th-century stone watch tower in Florence, Italy, and capping it with a 51-foot-tall revolving replica of a blue Bromo Seltzer bottle.

The crenelated tower at Lombard and Eutaw streets wasn't the most efficient of structures. But it sure got attention for Bromo Seltzer.

That's just the sort of eccentric thinking it will take to convert Emerson's 1911 landmark to apartments, as city officials want to do within the next several years.

As a solution to the city's rental apartment shortage, conversion of the Bromo Seltzer tower wouldn't make much of a dent. With one apartment per floor, it would add only 12 apartments to the city's housing stock -- a fraction of the 1,000 or more residences needed downtown.

It would be rather impractical, too, since the tower has only 900 square feet of space per floor, and much of that is taken up by stairways and elevators.

And yet, if someone with Emersonian flair could find a way to pull it off, converting the city-owned tower would be just the sort of signature project the city needs to get people excited about living downtown.

Once the tallest building on the city skyline, the Bromo Seltzer tower is still one of the most distinctive. From most seats at Oriole Park, fans look straight at it. The city illuminates it at night as part of the Light Up Baltimore campaign.

Currently, the building is occupied by the Mayor's Advisory Committee for Arts and Culture and is known as the Baltimore Arts Tower. Some of the floors are used as offices; others are used as storage for equipment and supplies related to arts events, such as the Artscape festival.

Gayla Phillips, physical arrangements coordinator for Artscape, says she loves her ninth-floor office. Her favorite view is of Lombard Street on a rainy evening at rush hour, as all the cars head west with their lights on. She also has a direct view into Oriole Park, although she can't see home plate. "You can only tell if they score by the crowd cheering," she explained.

The idea of converting the Bromo Seltzer tower to housing surfaced last week, when housing commissioner Daniel P. Henson III announced that the city would seek proposals from developers interested in recycling it as part of the city's initiative to rejuvenate the west side of downtown.

"We're looking for the developer with the best proposal for making it work," he said. "I've walked the building. You have great views from any floor. I can imagine it being a funky place to live."

Henson's announcement came one month after the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed downtown's west side on its annual list of 11 endangered places. The Trust took action after Baltimore's City Council passed legislation authorizing the city to buy and demolish more than 100 buildings as part of a $350 million redevelopment plan.

Henson mentioned plans for recycling the Bromo Seltzer tower to make the point that city officials are thinking creatively about saving the west side's historic buildings. He said that the city is working with developers to convert nearly a dozen historically significant buildings to apartments and that he already has received some interest in the Bromo Seltzer tower from developers. He said the arts agency could be relocated to another building, clearing the way for redevelopment.

Within the next month, he said, the city will formally seek development proposals for it.

The tower was designed by Joseph Evans Sperry as part of a larger complex that housed the offices and factory of the Emerson Drug Co. Shortly after the turn of the last century, Emerson made a grand tour of Europe and was so intrigued by the Palazzo Vecchio that he hired Sperry to design a tower just like it. The adjacent six-story factory was demolished in the 1960s and replaced with a fire station, but the 300-foot-tall tower was preserved.

When the tower was completed, Emerson crowned it with a flashy memorial to his entrepreneurial genius -- a 51-foot-tall, 17-ton revolving replica of the famous Bromo Seltzer bottle. Constructed of blue steel and illuminated with 596 lights, the bottle made two revolutions per minute, flashing beams of light to sailors as far as 20 miles away. In 1936, when the revolutions caused structural damage, the bottle was removed and pounded into scrap metal.

In 1967, the Bromo Seltzer business was moved to Pennsylvania by a firm that bought the Emerson Drug Co. The building was left to the city with the stipulation that the tower be retained.

Would the Bromo building work as housing? There would definitely be pluses and minuses.

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