Respected restorer of Victorians goes funky


March 18, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

What's this? An espresso bar in the latest building recycled by the Agora publishing company?

And could it be -- exposed beams in the ceiling and bare bricks on the walls? Is this the same Agora that has faithfully restored five Victorian gems in Baltimore's Mount Vernon historic district?

For years, Agora's owners have forged a reputation as urban innovators by zigging when everyone else zagged.

While other companies moved from old buildings to new high-rises downtown or trendy locations along the waterfront, Agora went in the other direction. After renovating an East Baltimore Street rowhouse 20 years ago under a city-sponsored shopsteading program, company leaders shifted their attention to the Mount Vernon-Belvedere historic district. From 1994 to 2000, they acquired some of the area's finest old buildings and turned them into a campus of sorts for about 200 employees, who publish newsletters and books.

Their properties include the former Marburg Mansion at 14 W. Mount Vernon Place; the former Episcopal Diocese of Maryland headquarters at 105 W. Monument St.; the former Christian Science Building at 702 Cathedral St.; a townhouse at 819 N. Charles St.; and the former home of Baltimore and Ohio Railroad director Ross Winans at 1217 St. Paul St., designed by noted New York architect Stanford White.

Their restoration work has drawn accolades from Baltimore Heritage, a preservation advocacy group that honored the company several years ago for saving buildings that no one else seemed to want and showing that they can be productive in the Information Age.

"The buildings Agora has taken on are among the most historically and architecturally important in the city," former Baltimore Heritage president William Pencek said at the time. Agora has "very lovingly and carefully restored and adapted them for modern office use. ... They've set an example for others with their forward thinking."

The restored Mount Vernon landmarks "reflect the grace and elegance of the 19th century," responded company president and majority owner William Bonner. "They cause us to aim for a higher standard for our products and ourselves."

Funky new space

Given its penchant for preserving architectural treasures, Agora seemed like the last company in town that would succumb to the trend of putting employees in the sort of funky work spaces that are taking shape in former warehouses and factories as part of Baltimore's Digital Harbor initiative.

But earlier this month, its leaders unveiled the latest expansion for their growing work force -- a four-story building at 808 St. Paul St. Instead of plaster walls and gilt-edge mirrors over stone mantels, the interior is positively dot-commish.

The shell is old, dating back to the 1850s. But the interior spaces are raw, with high ceilings, wood floors, exposed ductwork and brick or concrete block walls. There's a suburban-style deck off the third-level rear for outdoor meetings or meals. And the first floor contains the coffee bar, made from some of the wood salvaged from the building. It's reminiscent of the work spaces that designers are creating inside old industrial buildings such as Tide Point in south Baltimore or the Can Company in Canton.

What's more, Agora is vacating one of its finest buildings, the 46-room Winans mansion at 1217 St. Paul St. For years, it was known as the "house of mystery" -- a reference to its forbidding exterior, the high wall around its garden and the reclusive nature of former owner Ross Winans.

The company has put it up for sale or lease and plans to move several dozen employees who now work there -- the financial publishing division -- to 808 St. Paul by the end of the month.

Does all this mean that Agora has grown weary of working in opulence and finally jumped on the dot-com bandwagon? Not exactly.

According to facilities manager Jean Hankey, the company purchased the 808 building with the idea of razing it to create more parking for its staffers. At the time, it had been vacant for more than a decade and was in poor condition.

City records indicate that it was originally two private homes that were combined into one building, most likely an apartment house. Later, it was expanded and turned into a nursing home, which went out of business. When Agora bought it in 1998 for $100,000, it had been damaged by fire and condemned by the city. Vagrants had taken shelter inside.

Hankey said Agora tore off a low-rise addition in the rear to create a 28-space parking lot. But the more company officials saw of the main building when that work was under way, she said, the more they thought it was too valuable to tear down completely. They thought it could at least be used for storage and possibly more. They also didn't want to create a gap-toothed look along St. Paul Street.

Eventually, "we were convinced it could make some exciting office space," she said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.