University hopes to save 1915 facade

Preservation: Will Odorite building's walls be incorporated into new UB student union?

Architecture

March 11, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Thirteen years after the University of Baltimore acquired the former Odorite building with the intention of razing it for a parking lot, campus leaders now are exploring the idea of saving at least part of it.

The fate of the Elizabethan-Tudor style building long has been a source of concern to local preservationists, who regard it as a significant part of Baltimore's Mount Vernon historic district. Constructed in 1915 as a showroom for the Monumental Motor Car Co., it is distinguished by large plate glass windows at street level and projecting windows above. It later was occupied by a janitorial supplies company, Odorite, which moved two blocks south in 1990.

As part of its master plan for expansion, the university now wants to build a student union where the Odorite building stands, at the southeast corner of Maryland and Mount Royal avenues.

Planners recently asked a local engineering consultant, Heery International, to estimate the project's cost in two ways: as an all-new structure rising in place of the Odorite building, or as a structure incorporating the two most visible walls of the Odorite building, the Maryland and Mount Royal avenue sides.

Heery calculated that construction costs would be about $300,000 higher if the university reused the two walls of the existing structure - approximately $12.8 million for a student union with the walls, vs. about $12.5 million without the walls.

University President H. Mebane Turner said the cost estimates were sought as part of preliminary planning for the student union (which would contain a food court, book store and other student spaces), and that an architect has not yet been selected.

The university must decide whether $300,000 is too high a price to pay for saving the walls. A student union is different from other campus projects, Turner said, because construction funds come directly from student fees. Students may not want their fees going to save the walls of the Odorite building instead of funding programs from which they can benefit.

"I'm sure anything can be done, if you want to spend the money," he said. "At what point would students be upset to see their fees paying for it?"

The university didn't get a cost estimate for saving the entire Odorite building because it isn't large enough to accommodate the student union as currently envisioned, Turner said. The replacement building is expected to rise three to five stories, and the university asked Heery to estimate the cost of saving the north and west walls because they are the Odorite building's most prominent features.

"You want me to save the tacky cinder block [on the back side] for historical purposes? I don't think so. It has two interesting walls, and we're trying to determine how to proceed," he said. "I'd like to get an architect who has an open mind."

The final decision about the Odorite building will depend not only on the cost difference, but on whether the two walls can be incorporated in an attractive way.

"If they could be worked in, I would be amenable to doing it. The question is, could you then design a building using these two walls that would not look like an elephant?" he said. "We wouldn't want it to look gerrymandered."

The Odorite building was designed by Wilson Smith and Howard May, two architects of the Bank of America building at 10 Light St. and the North Avenue Market. It has two levels and a basement - about 20,000 square feet in all.

The university acquired it in 1989 with the idea of razing it to create a VIP parking lot for the business school next door, and Odorite moved out. But in 1990, then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer responded to preservationists by quashing the demolition plan. The university left the building standing, but never gave it a permanent use.

Owen Lewis, Odorite's president, said he would like to see the whole building preserved. "It couldn't be more sound," he said. "It's solid concrete."

Donald Kann, an architect on Baltimore's preservation commission, warned that saving certain walls of a historic building doesn't always result in a successful preservation project. "We think it's an important building to preserve in as intact a state as possible," he said. "We would certainly encourage the university to save the entire building."

The key, he said, is for the university to write the specifications for the project in a way that encourages as much retention of the historic structure as possible, and gives the architect flexibility to explore all the possibilities, rather than preordaining what can happen.

If the student union is too big to fit into the Odorite building, he said, then perhaps the university ought to find another location for it.

"If you want to build a very large building on a site where there's a historic structure, maybe you don't want to build a very large building. One has to rule," he said. "You have to be careful that the program and the [historic] building are compatible."

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