They've won kudos for restoring St. Ignatius Church near downtown Baltimore.
They've shown creativity in transforming an old sign company headquarters to offices for the Catholic Review.
Now the Baltimore design partnership of Michael Murphy and Frank Dittenhafer appears to have landed another high-profile commission that could further test its restoration acumen - a $9.3 million student union for the University of Baltimore.
A state panel has ranked Murphy & Dittenhafer Inc. as its first choice over five other finalists to design a 43,000-square-foot student center for the southeast corner of Maryland and Mount Royal avenues in Baltimore's Mount Vernon historic district.
It's the current site of a distinctive but dilapidated building that originally served as a car showroom and later housed the Odorite janitorial supplies company.
Expected to rise three to five stories, the student union will be the first major building designed for the University of Baltimore campus under its new president, Robert Bogomolny, who began work last week.
If they can conclude fee negotiations with the state and if the Board of Public Works approves their contract in September, Murphy and Dittenhafer will begin design work this fall.
That means they will have to figure out how to fit a bookstore, food court, multi-purpose room, offices for student groups and other spaces onto the Odorite property, which the university has owned for more than a decade.
They also will have to decide whether to keep any part of the Odorite building, whose Elizabethan-Tudor design makes it one of the most unusual structures in Mount Vernon.
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 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.
University officials earlier this year explored the idea of incorporating at least the north and west facades of the Odorite building into the student union and concluded that it would increase the project's cost by approximately $300,000.
Now that architects have been identified for the project, university officials want to know what they think.
"It is under discussion right now," said Dennis Pelletier, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management. "They're being asked to do an engineering study [to determine the feasibility of saving the Odorite building]. Nothing is decided yet."
Murphy and Dittenhafer's expertise in restoration and adaptive reuse of older buildings is one reason it emerged as the panel's top choice for the commission, he added. "If there's anyone who can help us - it's them."
Other finalists included Grieves Worrall Wright and O'Hatnick with Perry Dean Rogers and Partners; RCG Inc.; Design Collective; Cho Benn Holback + Associates, and a team headed by Cochran Stephenson & Donkervoet.
One key member of Murphy and Dittenhafer's design team is in a particularly tricky situation as far as the preservation issue is concerned. Architect Jim Suttner is chairman of the community panel that reviews designs of building projects planned for Mount Vernon and makes recommendations to the city's preservation agency, which would have to sign off on any demolition permits.
Suttner said he would have to excuse himself from any community review panel discussions about the student union if his firm is the designer. As the architect, he said, he has mixed feelings.
"We're in a quandary," he said. "We've proven that old buildings can be restored and adapted for new uses. But how do you take an addition that's three or four times the size of the original building and make it fit? That's a challenge.
"My personal feeling is that it's good to try to retain buildings whenever possible, and I think this building has characteristics worthy of consideration."
At the same time, he said, the construction of a student union at Maryland and Mount Royal avenues represents "an opportunity to knit together a fragmented campus and make it feel like a campus." A new building, he said, "has the ability to make the campus much more cohesive, and the campus needs that."
Sometimes, Suttner said, preservationists fight to save an older building in a historic district not because it's all that good but because they are afraid that if it's demolished to make way for new construction, the replacement will be even worse. If a "wonderful building" can be designed to take the place of the older building, he reasons, people may not be so upset about losing the existing structure.
The trick, of course, is arriving at that "wonderful" design.
Bowden on panel
Gary Bowden, a retired principal of RTKL Associates, is the newest member of Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel, which reviews plans for major construction projects throughout the city. He replaces Melvin Mitchell, former head of the architecture program at Morgan State University.