Turning point for downtown

The fate of two Redwood Street Buildings could set the tone for future look of Baltimore's historic financial district.

Architecture ... Review

August 13, 2000|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

There are two ways downtown Baltimore could evolve over the next 20 years. It could become more like Atlanta, with glitzy office towers and hotels rising from a barren base of parking lots and public plazas. Or it could follow the model of San Francisco and Chicago, with well-preserved older buildings interspersed with contemporary structures.

The path Baltimore takes may well depend on the outcome of a legal dispute involving Redwood Street, the one-time "Wall Street of the South" and heart of the city's historic financial district.

A Bethesda-based developer, Donald J. Urgo & Associates, wants to demolish two buildings at the southeast corner of Redwood and Light streets and replace them with a 125-room Residence Inn by Marriott. The new building has been designed to evoke the historic character of Redwood Street but with all new mechanical systems and amenities. It would be the Camden Yards of extended-stay hotels.

Local preservationists, fearing the historical and cultural erosion of downtown Baltimore, filed suit to block the project on the grounds that the city's decision to issue a demolition permit is inconsistent with a 1977 urban renewal plan encouraging preservation of buildings along Redwood.

The preservationists say there are plenty of vacant or nonhistoric sites downtown on which to build a Marriott. They want the city to use its condemnation powers to acquire the threatened buildings and preserve Redwood Street's integrity. So far, the administration of Mayor Martin O'Malley has declined. City officials are concerned about sending "the wrong message" to the business community if they derail a development project.

But in this case, they'd be sending the wrong message if they don't.

Rose from fire of 1904

The buildings along Redwood Street, from Charles to South streets, literally rose from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1904, which devastated much of downtown. As if to show they were not giving up in the face of adversity, business owners and merchants rushed to construct buildings that were, in most cases, better than the ones destroyed. The result was "the best business architecture we've ever built," according to Charles Duff, president of the Baltimore Architecture Foundation. And most of it is still intact, forming, Duff said, a "great canyon of tall buildings along a narrow street."

The two buildings threatened by the Marriott project were part of that post-fire building spree. The four-story structure at 17 Light Street, constructed in 1904, was headquarters of the Merchants and Miners Transportation Company, a key force in Baltimore's boom as a center of maritime trade between 1852 and 1948. Designed by Charles E. Cassell, and characterized by its red brick and terra cotta trim, it later housed the Fairfax Savings and Loan Association.

Even more significant architecturally is the former Sun Life Insurance Co. building, a six-story structure built in 1916 at 101-109 E. Redwood Street. Distinguished by an ornate stone front, it was designed by Baltimore-born Louis Levi, who in 1905 became the first Jewish architect to join the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The preservationists have commissioned local architect Art Kutcher to prepare drawings showing how attractive both would be if preserved for commercial use.

Urgo & Associates explored ways to save at least one of the buildings, at the city's insistence. But its designers -- Sullivan Architecture of Valhalla, N.Y., and Rubeling & Associates of Towson -- concluded the buildings didn't work as a hotel and proposed all-new construction.

The preliminary design calls for an 11-story building with its main entrance on Light Street. It would have a four-story base, a heavy cornice above the 10th floor and windows designed to give the building a residential appearance. In many ways, it's a throwback to the 1930s-era apartment houses that line University Parkway near Charles Street.

To their credit, the architects strove to make the building compatible with others on Redwood Street. But while it has some features one might find in a building from the early 1900s, it has neither the pedigree nor the patina of the real thing. It lacks the heft of the Merchants and Miners building and the elaborate detailing of the Sun Life building. It would suffer by comparison with all the older buildings on the street.

Even if the design were more distinguished, the plan still would be troubling. Redwood Street is one of the most intact rows of Baltimore buildings dating from the early 1900s. It's the sort of environment that captivates film directors such as Barry Levinson, who featured it in "Liberty Heights." One corner disappeared with the recent demolition of the Southern Hotel. This would be even more chipping away.

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