Digging up leads on lost architects

Whodunit: Members of the Historic Architects' Roundtable pursue the identities of those who designed the buildings of Baltimore.

May 06, 2001|By Charles Belfoure | Charles Belfoure,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Nothing gives Jim Wollon more pleasure than solving a whodunit.

Wollon, chairman of the Historic Architects' Roundtable, better known as the Dead Architects' Society, is a kind of architectural detective. With patience, diligence and sometimes blind luck, he tracks down which architect did what building. Solving a mystery is what Wollon, an architect from Havre de Grace, calls an "attribution."

"Every attribution is exciting," said Wollon, who's led the Dead Architects since they began in 1989. "There're thousands of buildings in Baltimore, and nobody has a clue who designed them," he said.

Like filling in pieces of a gigantic puzzle, Wollon and members of the Dead Architects are discovering who designed the architecture in Baltimore and, in some cases, the rest of the state.

People who own historic homes or worship in an old church or work in a historic building often are fascinated by that structure's history. The data the Dead Architects have collected as well as some of their research methods can help homeowners and owners of buildings trace the history of their property.

"It's all about digging for information," said Carlos Avery, an original member whose special interest is the work of Baldwin and Pennington, whose designs include the Maryland Club and the old B&O warehouse overlooking Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"You crank through rolls of microfilm of old newspapers, visit sites and talk to people," said Avery, a physicist by training who has gathered about 550 attributions for B&P since he started his research in 1978. His interest in the firm was kindled when he wanted to know who designed the B&O station in Rockville.

It was Avery's research, according to Wollon, that was the catalyst for formation of the Dead Architects. In the late 1980s, Walter Schamu, one of the elder statesmen of Baltimore's architectural community, heard of Avery's work and invited him to lecture. The gathering of architects and historians gave rise to the idea of creating a group devoted to architectural research.

Schamu called together the first meeting of the Dead Architects in March 1989, which became a part of the Baltimore Architecture Foundation, an organization he founded in 1987.

The first research project focused on a group portrait of the 18 men who founded the Baltimore Chapter of the American Institute of Architecture in 1870.

"They were just names; nobody knew anything about them," Wollon said. But slowly the Dead Architects put flesh to the names of the 18 long-dead architects by amassing biographical profiles of all of them as well as a list of the buildings they designed.

Research has progressed since then, and the group now has extensive building lists for 30 architects from the 19th century and limited data on about 80 architects from that time through the early 20th century.

The group also researches the designer's life, finding out when he was born, for whom he worked and even how he died. For example, Thomas Kennedy, who did many buildings for Loyola and Notre Dame colleges, was riding his bicycle when he was hit and killed by a car in 1914.

Many members focus on one particular architect. Retired architect Randy Chalfant has gathered an impressive amount of material on the influential mid-19th century firm of Niernsee and Neilson, designer of Camden Station and Clifton, the home of Johns Hopkins.

Chalfant has even researched articles by Austrian-born John Niernsee in an 1840 Viennese engineering journal describing the construction of iron roofs 10 years before the advent of cast iron design.

Wollon admires George Archer, who did the Graham-Hughes House on the southwest corner of Madison and Charles streets. Until 1870, most architects learned the profession through apprenticeships. Archer, who graduated from Princeton, was one of the first to be college-educated.

The greatest of all researchers, according to members of the Dead Architects, is John McGrain. "John's responsible for the vast majority of attributions," Wollon said.

"I just sit and crank through the newspapers like the Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore American and the Gazette," McGrain said. "After the Great Fire of 1904, the papers are full of renderings of new buildings, so I photocopy them."

McGrain writes the attributions on a pad, and he used to type them up on index cards but now enters the information into a computer. "I got into this accidentally by finding out odds and ends of attributions, but it became fun and I kept on doing it," McGrain said. "One of the biggest problems going through the newspapers is that you get distracted by the news articles," he said with a laugh.

McGrain now is concentrating on the 1920s and lately has come across many buildings by Smith and May, designers of the 1929 Art Deco skyscraper at 10 Light St.

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