Stieff Silver building gains a new purpose

High-tech tenants begin moving into structure after interior renovated

January 17, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

At one of Baltimore's signature buildings, the Stieff Silver factory on Wyman Park Drive, the past is embracing the future.

High-tech tenants are moving into the former silver manufacturing company, where renovation of the 1920s building - including an all new interior - is nearly complete. Only the brick exterior and the large lighted sign overlooking Jones Falls and facing downtown will stay intact.

"Essentially, it's a new building within the shell of the old building," said Timothy E. Pula, development director for Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse and the project supervisor.

Struever Bros. bought the dilapidated building in Hampden for $1.5 million in March 2000 and insisted the sign be included.

The deal to breathe new life into a vacant structure was struck because state historic tax credits meant retrofitting made economic sense, said Pula. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places. "It's an exciting space and a win for the city," Pula said.

All told, the 82,500-square-foot redevelopment project represents an investment of $13.2 million, Pula said, including the cost of installing new air conditioning, heating and plumbing systems.

Once a space for producing well-wrought silver patterns and a quarter of the country's pewter - as well as the Preakness Woodlawn Vase - the silversmithing company has become the staging area for creating distinctive office space for white-collar or high-tech tenants. Tenants include architects, landscape designers, graphics designers, a telecommunications business, a university engineering laboratory and a new Environmental Protection Agency center.

"We're visionaries; we do this every day," Pula said, referring to his boss Bill Struever's passion for restoring character-filled industrial landmarks.

Some occupants, the nonprofit Parks and People Foundation for instance, have moved in. The Johns Hopkins University Center for Nondestructive Evaluation started operations Monday, officials said.

The center will study how much stress objects can stand before breaking. Surveying the small indoor crane needed to lift things such as an airplane wing or a section of railroad track, Pula said X-rays, laser laboratories and a 60-foot-long wave tank also would be part of the indoor scenery.

"They [Hopkins engineers] have very specific equipment needs and were able to give very precise feedback," he said.

In the vintage building's new look, the large windows, intended to bring in sunlight to help workers see better, are not as functional as they were. But they still bring in the outdoors, some of which is unchanged: Stone Hill, an old mill community; an 1873 warehouse; and the Jones Falls.

"It's somewhat magical in the spring, when it's dense and green," Pula said, pointing out a hawk on the bare branch of a tree.

Exposed brick walls and high-ceiling rooms with ducts and wiring in plain view are part of the spare decor.

Showing visitors around the office of the Parks and People Foundation, Executive Director Jacqueline Carrera mentioned the children's murals near the conference rooms and the wood work stations for about 30 employees.

"So now all we need is a bike rack," she said, referring to a federally funded bicycle trail planned for this year along the Jones Falls connecting Pennsylvania Station and Druid Hill Park.

Johns Hopkins decided to lease all the space in a 1970 addition to the original building, said Dennis O'Shea, a university spokesman, without knowing exactly how it would use the expanse.

"Along with historic preservation, the university is vitally interested in the neighborhoods nearby," O'Shea said, noting that the towers and domes of the university campus are easily seen from the roof of Stieff Silver.

Hopkins also plans to set up a new Information Security Institute for studying intellectual property, privacy and ethical issues in the computer age; and an EPA-funded office for studying issues of hazardous waste in urban environments, O'Shea said.

Making an old building work in new ways is known as "adaptive reuse," but Pula also likened his work to "conducting a symphony."

Speaking by telephone from Utah where he was on a ski trip, Struever said the project represents "a great reflection of [the city's] continuing vigor."

"It's always a delight to bring life to buildings sitting empty and forlorn," he said. "This is the new generation of Baltimore."

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