Beauty and history have been locked up to rot

Nineteenth-century Camden Station, deteriorating in the shadow of Oriole Park, has been shunted to the sidetrack.

Architecture

March 31, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

When Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992, one prominent feature remained off limits to the general public.

Camden Station, the historic train depot that gave its name to Baltimore's downtown sports district, had been restored to its original exterior appearance, complete with a three-tiered clock tower and side cupolas. But officials at the Maryland Stadium Authority had no money to fix up the interior and left the doors locked, saying they'd need a private investor to finish the restoration.

Ten years have now passed since Oriole Park made its debut, triggering a wave of baseball-only, back-to-the city ballparks. But nothing much has changed for Camden Station, which will still be locked when crowds arrive tomorrow for Opening Day.

Neither the Do It Now leadership of former Gov. William Donald Schaefer nor the Smart Growth strategizing of Gov. Parris Glendening has produced the right combination of public and private funding needed to unlock the doors of Camden Station and make it more than an empty shell. Camden Station remains the most beautiful and valuable vacant building in downtown Baltimore -- and in many ways the most embarrassing.

Exterior spruced up

In fairness to the state officials who presided over Oriole Park's construction, the original plan for Camden Yards didn't even call for the train station's exterior to be restored with state funds. Public money was allocated to build a ballpark for the Orioles and a second stadium for major league football, not to restore a train station on Camden Street.

As Oriole Park took shape in 1991, however, leaders of the stadium authority realized that it wouldn't look good to have a dilapidated train station next to the main entrance.

"It was boarded up. The cupolas were gone. The sight that you would see as you came to Camden Yards would be of this abandoned building," recalled Herbert Belgrad, chairman of the stadium authority from 1986 to 1995. "We didn't want that to be the first view of Camden Yards."

The stadium authority hired the architectural firm of Cho Wilks and Benn, now Cho Benn Holback + Associates, to prepare restoration plans for the state-owned train station. The agency's goal was to stabilize the exterior and spruce it up in time for Opening Day. Once the season was under way, officials figured, they could decide on a use for the building and identify a private developer.

The three-story building was clearly worth preserving. Built starting in 1853 but not completed until 1865, it was the principal terminal of America's first commercial railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio, and for years was the city's busiest depot. As designed by John Randolph Neirnsee and J. Crawford Nelson, the station boasted a 185-foot-high clock tower that made it the tallest building in Baltimore and, for a while, the largest train station in the world.

Along with President Street Station, it was one of the points where Union soldiers in 1861 were attacked by Confederate sympathizers, resulting in the first casualties of the Civil War. After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, his funeral train stopped at Camden Station on its journey back to Springfield, Ill. By the early 1990s, the station was used only as a boarding point for passengers of the MARC commuter line. Its interior and exterior were in advanced states of disrepair.

Cho Wilks and Benn proposed an artful restoration that made the station a handsome frontispiece for the new ballpark. Although the stadium authority had no funds in its budget to restore the station, leaders "borrowed" $2.2 million earmarked to build the football stadium, which couldn't get under way until a team materialized.

The restored station was rededicated three weeks before the ballpark opened, with a lamplighter in 19th-century garb illuminating two vintage gas lamps in front of the building. The careful restoration of the station and the street lamps epitomized the attention to detail that made Camden Yards such a success.

Proposals stall

To help recoup its investment, the stadium authority planned to solicit proposals from developers and rent the building to the group submitting the best bid.

"It was the jewel that everybody was hoping would be a center of activity, day in and day out," said architect George Holback. "It's the birthplace and namesake of the whole complex. The idea was to fill it with uses that gave it life year-round."

There had been no shortage of ideas for reusing the station. In the 1980s, the Oliver T. Carr Co. of Washington wanted to fix it up for office use, along with the B&O Warehouse. In the 1990s, a local group proposed to make it the entryway to a $600 million medical mart. The Orioles expressed strong interest in creating a baseball-oriented attraction, including an Orioles Hall of Fame, a Maryland Sports Hall of Fame and an exhibit dedicated to old ballparks.

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