Temple will undergo $10 million restoration

ARCHITECTURE

Owners to make building part of Tremont Plaza

July 08, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Four years after purchasing Baltimore's historic Masonic Temple to save it from demolition, a Washington-based hotelier plans to invest $10 million to restore it as a full-service banquet and conference facility.

The William C. Smith Co., owner of the Tremont Plaza Hotel at 222 St. Paul Place and the Tremont Hotel at 8 E. Pleasant St., has hired Murphy & Dittenhafer of Baltimore for the restoration and modernization of the seven-story building at 223-225 N. Charles St.

The Smith Co.'s plans call for the 1869 meeting palace to become an extension of the Tremont Plaza. It would be connected by a pedestrian "skybridge" to the hotel.

The ornate meeting rooms in the temple, which has also been called the Grand Lodge of Maryland, will be maintained and restored. Much of the proposed work involves introducing new mechanical systems, elevators, restrooms and a large kitchen.

Once renovated, the building will be available for conferences, business meetings, receptions, dances, bar mitzvahs and other gatherings. It even has its own chapel on the fifth level for weddings. Its restoration is being timed to coincide with the completion of an $11 million, 525-space garage that the city is building directly east of it, in the 200 block of St. Paul Place.

"The garage will complement this facility, and this facility will complement revitalization efforts along Charles Street," said Brad Fennell, senior vice president of the Smith Co. "It will bring a substantial number of people to the area. ... It really will be a one-of-a-kind treasure for the city of Baltimore."

Considered one of Charles Street's gems, the Masonic Temple was built as a meeting hall for the Grand Lodge of Masons of Maryland. The organization used it until 1994, when it opened an "activities building" in Cockeysville.

Restored after fires in 1890 and 1908, the Charles Street building contains 10 large meeting rooms, each in a different style. Used for rituals, they include a Roman room, with a marble floor and coffered ceiling; a Tudor Gothic room, modeled on Edinburgh's Roslyn Chapel; a hall that recalls an Egyptian temple; and an elaborately decorated chapter room.

The Smith Co. bought the Masonic Temple in 1998 for $500,000, after others considered tearing it down. It has held a few events inside, including a meeting of the Baltimore Heritage preservation group, but needs to upgrade safety systems and complete other renovations before it can make full use of the building.

The project is an important commission for Murphy & Dittenhafer, which has extensive experience in restoration but had not previously worked with the Smith Co. It was the restoration architect for St. Ignatius Church on North Calvert Street and is restoring the Romanesque chapel at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

The company was initially hired by the city to design a garage to rise in the parking lot east of the Masonic Temple and had to work with the Smith Co. in the course of preparing its plans. As Smith officials got to know the architects and their capabilities, Fennell said, they decided it would make sense to hire them to oversee restoration of the temple as well.

Construction of the 13-level garage began this summer and is scheduled to be completed by the fall of 2003. Work on the as-yet unnamed conference facility is expected to begin by the end of the year and be completed by late 2003 or early 2004.

The garage's design was key to saving the temple. At one time, city planners thought the temple might have to be razed in part or whole to make room for it. But Murphy & Dittenhafer found a way to make the garage fit by cantilevering its upper levels over Lovegrove Street, the midblock alley that runs parallel to Charles and St. Paul streets, while keeping the alley itself open to traffic.

Smith recently expanded the Tremont Plaza by building 73 guest suites in place of seven office levels and replacing room fixtures and furnishings throughout the building. It now has 303 suites in all.

When the conference facility opens, groups could arrange to stay overnight in the guest rooms and meet in the conference rooms, or just book meeting rooms. The meeting rooms can accommodate groups ranging from 60 to 400 people, and the Tremont Plaza will be able to handle several events at the same time.

Architect Michael Murphy said the project is being designed to comply with federal standards for architectural restoration, so the owners can qualify for state and federal tax credits for historic preservation. Although the building is not on any landmark lists -- one reason preservationists feared that it might be demolished -- it falls within the Cathedral Hill historic district, and that makes it eligible for tax credits, he explained.

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