The Rochester Urban Renewal Authority in 1969 and 1970 was evicting merchants, barbers, beauty parlors and mostly minority-owned shops from a blighted area downtown. Struever had fallen in love with this urban landscape walking an early-morning paper route. But now his job was working as a relocation agent for the authority, kicking out merchants to make way for demolition.
The experience helped to forge his guiding philosophy: Cities must be saved, but not through demolition that leaves suburban-style sterility. Instead, the "character and spirit" of the city must be preserved through the renovation of older buildings and the encouragement of local businesses.
At Brown, in Providence, R.I., Struever designed a curriculum that allowed him to graduate as an urban anthropology major. Some of his closest friends from college remember him as the kind of guy who, despite a privileged upbringing (his parents had separate summer homes), chose to shun Ivy League dorms and live in a rat-infested apartment building in a seedy section of town. And though he didn't need money, he chose to work from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. before classes loading produce trucks.
"Talk about an alternative lifestyle - he lived an alternative lifestyle," says Amy Gould, a college friend.
After graduation in 1974, Struever moved to Baltimore with his roommate, Eccles. They were drawn here in part by the ideology of Mayor Schaefer's urban renaissance and in part by the promise of free room and board in Nancy Struever's new home. She had become a professor of Renaissance history at Johns Hopkins University and lived in the well-to-do Tuscany Canterbury neighborhood.
In 1974, Bill, Fred and Eccles formed a home improvement business called Struever Bros. and Eccles that installed shelves and remodeled kitchens for Hopkins professors. Bill Struever was an electrician and the leader of the company. Eccles, the straight-laced math major, studied a book on accounting and handled the numbers. Fred, the partyer who never went to college, helped with the carpentry and hanged drywall. Later, the firm added Ted Rouse, a professional oboist, home renovator and son of developer James Rouse.
In 1976, the brothers borrowed $10,000 from their mother to buy a two-story red brick rowhouse at 436 Grindall St. in what was then a run-down Federal Hill neighborhood just starting to become gentrified.
Struever Bros. next fixed up 25 houses on an adjacent block, then bought and renovated 40 stores around the nearby Cross Street Market. But they couldn't find anyone to buy them. So they started businesses - an ice cream shop, tavern, bookstore and gourmet cheese shop - to try to create the illusion that the area was hotter than it was.
From Federal Hill, Struever Bros. moved north into the center of the city to help gentrify Charles Street and Mount Vernon in the early 1980s. Canton was the target in the mid-1980s and 1990s, and now it's Locust Point in southern Baltimore.
"Bill Struever is an urban legend," says Robert Quilter, an architect who works for the city. "He's always been on the cutting edge. He helped to start the boom in Federal Hill and Charles Street, moved to Canton, did the second generation of projects there. Now with Tide Point he's riding that wave."
In 1974, the company grossed $45,000 - a $5,000 profit, split three ways. "Beer money, that's about it," Struever recalls. Last year, the firm brought in more than $80 million and employed 200 people.
His projects - at least 166 since 1984 - include townhouses, senior apartments, research labs, public housing, the Tindeco Wharf apartments, the Bagby office building, Brown's Arcade retail plaza, Louie's Bookstore Cafe, Our Daily Bread food pantry and a Cadillac dealership in suburban Cockeysville. About 35 percent of Struever Bros.' work is development, 65 percent construction contracting.
In the last year and a half, Struever has launched a dizzying array of projects. Aside from Tide Point, his firm is planning to build a small city of shops and offices along the water on Thames Street in Fells Point. He's building apartments in the long-vacant Congress Hotel and the Munsey Building downtown. He's signed contracts to buy the Belvedere Square shopping center in north Baltimore, National Brewery in East Baltimore and Coca-Cola plant in southern Baltimore.
In an increasingly uniform-looking America, where even visitors to the Inner Harbor see the same Pizzeria Uno and Planet Hollywood chain restaurants they would see in New Jersey or Ohio, Struever's buildings tell people what makes Baltimore different. They almost always include symbols of the city's industrial past - decorated snuff tins in the lobby of Tindeco Wharf apartments, a pyramid of tin cans in the American Can Co. entrance. And they use exposed brick, rough-looking beams and quirky layouts to let visitors know they're not in a generic-looking box in suburban Owings Mills or White Marsh.