Pulling out of Bromo Seltzer tower


March 26, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

For the first time in 28 years, Baltimore's quirky "Arts Tower" has no city arts employees working there and is available for a new use.

Employees from the old Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture moved out over the weekend, following that agency's merger this year with the Baltimore Office of Promotion.

The move was designed to bring all of the employees of the combined agency, now called the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, to one location. The agency's new offices are on the fifth floor of the Legg Mason Building at 7 E. Redwood St. - the barely used former headquarters of the failed Coleman Craten brokerage firm.

The move also means that the 15-story tower at 15 S. Eutaw St., also known as the Bromo Seltzer Tower and modeled after a 13th-century stone watch tower in Florence, Italy, is without a tenant for the first time since the arts agency took up residence in 1974.

"We've notified the real estate department that we're vacating the premises and it's going to become surplus property," Bill Gilmore, executive director of the agency, said last week.

Various floors of the tower will continue to be used temporarily for storage, but all of the agency's nearly three-dozen employees were to be based in the new Redwood Street location as of yesterday, Gilmore said.

Before the merger, the promotion office was on the first floor of the Baltimore Arena garage at 200 W. Lombard St., two blocks east of the arts tower. "We've been running back and forth, up and down the street since the first of the year," Gilmore said. "Now, we'll be integrated."

Visible from most seats of Oriole Park at Camden Yards and featuring a four-sided clock near its crenelated top, the 1911 Bromo Seltzer Tower is one of Baltimore's most unusual works of architecture.

The 308-foot-tall tower was designed by Joseph Evans Sperry as part of a larger complex that housed the offices and factory of the Emerson Drug Co. The owner, "Captain" Isaac E. Emerson, built the factory to manufacture a headache remedy he invented, Bromo Seltzer.

To promote his invention, Emerson asked Sperry to design a tower just like the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence and then capped it with a 51-foot-tall, revolving blue Bromo Seltzer bottle. It was once the tallest structure on the city skyline and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1967, the Bromo Seltzer business was moved to Pennsylvania by a firm that bought the Emerson Drug Co. The tower and adjoining factory were left to the city with the stipulation that the tower be retained. The city razed the factory to make way for a fire station and used the renamed tower to house the arts agency and a subsidiary, the Baltimore Mural Project.

"It's been great working in a building that everybody knows, and I'll miss it," said Gary Kachadourian, visual arts coordinator for the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts and an arts tower denizen for the past 15 years. Before the merger, the agency had about a dozen employees in the tower - about one per floor. Many enjoyed sweeping views of the city.

"It's a very idiosyncratic structure," said Kachadourian, adding that having an office there is like "working in a chimney. It's purely vertical. It's not all that efficient, but from the standpoint of privacy, it's pretty great."

Baltimore's housing department sought redevelopment proposals for the tower several years ago and received bids from two groups that wanted to create upscale housing. But the O'Malley administration and then-housing commissioner Patricia Payne decided not to award the building to either bidder.

Joann Copes, assistant housing commissioner, said the city most likely will issue another request for proposals, possibly later this year. She said the Baltimore Development Corp., the quasi-public agency that is overseeing revitalization of the west side of downtown, will handle the bidding process this time because the tower is part of the west side renewal area.

In the meantime, the city's public works department will continue to maintain the building and make sure the blue lights - a homage to the missing Bromo Seltzer bottle - are illuminated at night, according to spokesman Kurt Kocher. In recent years, building maintenance has cost $30,000 to $35,000, he said.

Talks on architecture

Morgan State University architecture professor Mahendra Parekh will discuss how climate affects architectural design, especially in India, during a free noon forum tomorrow at the Johns Hopkins University's Downtown Center, Charles and Fayette streets.

New York-based architect and preservationist Paul Spencer Byard will discuss architecture and historic preservation during a talk at 6 p.m. tomorrow at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Tickets are $12 per person or $8 for seniors and students with a valid ID.

UB converts Durrett Gallery

The University of Baltimore has begun a $1.2 million conversion of the old Durrett Gallery at West Chase Street and Morton Alley in Mount Vernon to a new home for its law school's Center for Families, Children and the Courts. Former owner George Durrett and his wife donated the building to University Properties Inc. to make the project possible.

Editor's note: The Architecture column appears today because of expanded Academy Awards coverage yesterday. Look for it on its usual day, Monday, in the Today section.

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