Ritz goes back to the drawing board

The developer of the Ritz-Carlton site has replaced 'star-chitect' Michael Graves, but the challenge remains of integrating the design with neighboring Federal Hill.


July 23, 2000|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Michael Graves is one of America's most prolific designers, with projects ranging from the Walt Disney Corp. headquarters in California to clocks and tea kettles.

For more than a year, Graves and others in his Princeton-based firm, Michael Graves & Associates, have been working on a $100 million Ritz-Carlton hotel and condominium complex overlooking Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

But if Baltimoreans want to see his work anytime soon, they'll either have to visit another city or drop in on a local Target store. Graves has been replaced as the project's design architect.

Dissatisfied with preliminary plans for the building yet anxious to move ahead with construction, the developers have brought in a design team headed by Paul Marks and Mark Heckman of Marks, Thomas and Associates in Baltimore, and John Nichols and Anne Jackaway of Nichols, Brosch, Sandoval and Associates (NBS) in Coral Gables, Fla., a firm that specializes in upscale hotels and already has designed seven for Ritz-Carlton,

With the change in architects, Graves joins a slew of A-list architects who have begun work on key Baltimore projects only to be replaced before construction starts. It includes Americans Philip Johnson and Kevin Roche, whose firms designed downtown office towers, and British architect Richard Rogers, the original designer of Columbus Center on Pier 5.

The appointment of new architects for the 250-room Ritz-Carlton Inner Harbor (and the accompanying 75 to 100 Residences at the Ritz-Carlton) is also an occasion for fresh thinking about the design principles that make Baltimore's Inner Harbor so popular, and how those positive attributes can be extended to the harbor's south shore.

Mission impossible?

When he was commissioned in 1998 to design a Ritz-Carlton for Baltimore, Graves was given a seemingly impossible assignment -- to fit a hotel and condominium development at the foot of Federal Hill without blocking views to and from the hill itself.

The site is the "Propeller Yard" at the north end of the former Bethlehem Steel Corp. Key Highway shipyard, a 6.2-acre parcel now occupied by a nondescript brick warehouse. Graves early on suggested that a slender tower may be the best way to preserve views, but his proposal was shot down by residents of the nearby Federal Hill neighborhood for violating a 71-foot height limit.

Graves' office also proposed a sprawling, six-story building with several "fingers" extending into the harbor, but the guest-room wings looked more like airplane hangars than part of an upscale hotel, and they still would have blocked views of the water from Federal Hill. Their bowed roofline forms gave the project an ungainly profile and a strangely industrial look. They had none of the trademark Gravesian whimsy.

In May the company developing the Ritz-Carlton project, L. I. Square Corp. of New York and Baltimore, hired Edward Giannasca II as its new president and chief executive. Previously a vice president with HV Development and Contracting Co., Giannasca replaced developer Neil Fisher, who had hired Graves. One of Giannasca's first moves was to bring in the new architects. "I was not comfortable with the way the team was going," Giannasca said last week. "The architecture was not there. It was somewhat boring, in my opinion. ... It just didn't feel like a Ritz."

Marks, Thomas will be the architect of record, a role it played with the new Lutheran Center at 700 Light Street. Paul Marks is a Federal Hill resident who has extensive experience with high-end, multifamily housing and is well acquainted with the urban design issues pertaining to the Ritz- Carlton. NBS will be the design architect, with John Nichols as principal in charge and Anne Jackaway as project manager for that firm.

Founded in 1967, NBS has designed more than 100 hotels and resorts for clients such as Marriott, Loews, Hilton and Hyatt. Their Ritz-Carltons are in Coconut Grove, Naples and Miami, Fla.; St. Thomas, V. I.; and San Juan, P. R., among other locations.

Baltimore has not always gotten the best work out of big-name, out-of-town "star-chitects." They have been known to walk off with plum commissions and then let others in the office oversee the work, maintaining little involvement with the client or the community. The result can be worse than if the client had hired an eager local firm that gave the project its full attention.

Graves is one of America's most ubiquitous architects -- always jetting around the world, lecturing, schmoozing, promoting his designs and clients. His buildings range from corporate towers such as the Humana headquarters in Louisville, Ky., to the restored Washington Monument in the nation's capital.

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