Recycling concrete, craftsmanship

March 19, 2000|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Conversion of the 1925 Montgomery Ward warehouse to computer-age offices won't sacrifice the old building's character.

State transportation planners wanted to raze it and build a maintenance yard for commuter rail cars. Golf course operators dreamt of replacing it with a driving range. Others had notions of turning it into a police headquarters or a prison.

In the end, however, a far less pessimistic vision prevailed. Fifteen years after closing, the old Montgomery Ward catalog building in Southwest Baltimore is about to be sold to a development team that wants to recycle it.

The team is led by Sam Himmelrich Jr., who wants to transform the building into a $75 million business and technology park. With 1.3 million square feet of space, it will be the region's largest employment center under one roof, capable of housing more than 5,000 employees.

"We ... feel it will have a regional impact, providing a facility unequaled in the middle Atlantic," Himmelrich wrote at one point to Gov. Parris Glendening in a bid to get state bureaucrats to drop their pursuit of the property. "The opportunity cannot be duplicated."

Now that Himmelrich has won the right to buy the building, the hard part is about to begin. The Montgomery Park Business Center is no guaranteed success. The location at 1000 S. Monroe Street is neither part of Baltimore's resurgent downtown nor the tranquil suburbs. It lacks waterfront ambience. It's been vacant since Ronald Reagan was president.

But if anyone can make it work, Himmelrich can. Over the past decade, he has become an expert in the art of repositioning abandoned industrial buildings so they are economically viable again. Working with developer David Tufaro and others, Himmelrich has created a plan to reuse the entire Wards structure, the largest mercantile building in the city when it opened in the 1920s.

His strategy may not please community groups that have been hoping for an American Can-style conversion, with street-level shops and restaurants catering to the neighborhood, and offices above. Because of the property's size and location, Montgomery Park is envisioned as a self-contained community, with any commercial space serving the office workers already on the premises.

Still, like other Himmelrich projects, this one will emphasize retaining the essence of the building, even as its use changes. All work will be guided by federal standards for historic preservation. As a result, Montgomery Park promises to be a national model for bringing outmoded industrial buildings back to life in the Information Age.

To transform his vision to reality, Himmelrich turned to Werner Mueller, now a senior architect with the Baltimore office of Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall. The Swiss-born Mueller was the project architect for Himmelrich's successful conversion of the old Mount Washington Mill on Smith Avenue to shops and offices. He also was the architect of the Spring Garden Business Park, another Himmelrich project involving historic preservation. His work is known for its straightforward architectural treatment of building and site, emphasizing historic integrity.

The Montgomery Ward building is the largest Himmelrich and Mueller have worked on together, but their approach is the same: to identify the features of historic buildings that are beautiful and memorable and accentuate them instead of applying new decorative details. They keep modern interventions to a minimum.

"We want people to react to the original building, as opposed to what we did to the building," said Himmelrich.

Mercantile fortress

Constructed in 1925 and expanded in 1927, the Monroe Street building is one of seven large warehouses that Wards built around the country in the early 1900s for its catalog sales division. Its eight levels were used to store merchandise that was later shipped to catalog customers. The property also contained a large retail outlet for many years.

Made of poured-in-place concrete -- a mercantile fortress -- the building is well suited to office conversion. It's adjacent to the East Coast's main fiber optic lines and is readily adaptable for a variety of Internet and technology users. Its reinforced structure is capable of supporting heavy equipment and computer loads. Stairs and elevators were already in the right places. With 143,000 square feet per floor and columns every 20 feet, it could be subdivided to house companies that need anywhere from 800 square feet to 100,000 or more.

The main building is shaped like a giant four, consisting of a U-shaped section in the middle of the property and one leg near the intersection of Monroe Street and Washington Boulevard.

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