For Rotunda, a timely facelift to return its toll

Repairs: Workers will soon finish restoring the North Baltimore bell tower from belfry to balustrade.

January 07, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The bell tower in the Rotunda shopping center building is close to tolling clock chimes again after a five-year silence. And those Roman numerals will be watched once again.

Overlooking a panorama of the city -- from Hampden and Roland Park to the downtown skyline -- foreman Steven Sadler stood on the Rotunda roof near the belfry Friday and explained why workers used the technique of "speckling" thumbtack-sized dots of black paint on the tower's terra cotta.

"It's to make the terra cotta look original," said Sadler, who works for Worcester Eisenbrandt Inc. His team's intricate workmanship can't been seen from the streets below, but Sadler expects the look to last. "Then you can say to someone, `I worked on that job 30 years ago.' I take pride in my work," he said.

The scaffolding at the top of the brick building in North Baltimore has caused many Rotunda regulars to wonder. Last year, a team of workers investigated the extent of water damage that had built up over time to the 1921 Connecticut clock. In September, they began renovating an interior stairwell, progressing toward the restoration of the bells, clock and tower, which they expect to be finished next month.

"It's the main visual component, the centerpiece of the Rotunda," said Kimberly M. Hogan, property manager for Manekin LLC, which oversees the shopping center that has been open since 1971.

The site -- designed as an insurance business campus for Maryland Casualty Co. about 80 years ago -- was showing wrinkles of age, which this $750,000 restoration project is meant to erase from its most public face. The capital project represents the latest significant improvement for Rotunda Associates, which came under new ownership three years ago.

"It's something to say, back in business," Hogan said. As timing would have it, the mall's empty movie cinema will be reopened under new ownership next month, she said. Senator Theatre owner Tom Kiefaber plans to call it the Rotunda Cinematheque.

The retail facility, which houses a bank, a Giant grocery store, a stationery store, a locally owned bookstore, a dry cleaner, a gift shop and a few restaurants among its businesses, lies within walking distance for thousands of North Baltimore city dwellers. Yet few in a random survey of bank and shop customers seemed to know about the anticipated return of the Rotunda's bronze bell sound.

Most of the 300 senior citizens who live across the street in a retirement community frequent the Rotunda, said Gregory J. Lannon, president of Roland Park Place. But he didn't think the bell tower repair work was generally known among them.

"I think they'd be pleased to know," Lannon said.

Once in working order, the clock chimes will sound hourly from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., perhaps quarterly, Hogan said.

In its 2002 incarnation, the restored clock chamber will be watertight with a new ceiling in the belfry and a refurbished weather vane.

Sadler said that while architects and workers found the tower in good shape structurally, the restoration -- by Cannon Design -- included strengthening it for the decades ahead.

Twiliah A. Lucia, an assistant property manager for Manekin, said in her Rotunda office that the day the chimes sound again will please her: "It [the clock] vibrates outward. If you can see the sound of a bell, it's like a wave."

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