Old Standard Oil Building gets apartment makeover

Downtown office tower has $25 million face lift

October 17, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

You may know it as the Standard Oil Building, a handsome dinosaur looming over St. Paul Place in downtown Baltimore. Now, like Madonna and Cher, it has just one name -- the Standard -- and is the latest in what its developers describe as "luxury" living.

The 15-story office tower built for the Rockefellers' oil empire 80 years ago has undergone a $25 million makeover, giving it 202 apartments. Workers have restored marble and brass and added new touches such as high-speed Internet access.

Gone are elements -- elevator operators and an antiquated cooling system -- that were anachronisms by 1997 when state offices moved out. The 1950s-era drop ceiling that was an uninspiring canopy for the ornate barrel-vaulted lobby is but a bad memory.

City officials hope the effect will be no less striking on the outside. They expect new residents to turn a dead zone just south of Mount Vernon and north of downtown into a hub of activity on St. Paul Street.

"It's been a missing link," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm. He called the converted Standard "a very nice gap-filler."

"Having more people on the street will help to make it more comfortable and friendly for other people," said Lisa Kier, executive director of the Mount Vernon Cultural District. It's a four-block stretch, from the Peabody Institute to Mercy Medical Center, that she describes as "sort of desolate."

Kier envisions the Standard's residents taking in recitals at Peabody, plays at Center Stage and exhibits at the Walters Art Museum.

The limestone-clad Standard, also once known as the Stanbalt Building, is the latest outmoded office building to be reborn as housing; the 146-unit Munsey Building at Calvert and Fayette streets has leased 23 units.

The surge in downtown residential development has been fueled, in part, by hefty tax subsidies. In the case of the Standard, the city Board of Estimates in 2000 approved $1 million in property tax breaks over 10 years. State and federal tax credits should yield a total of about $8 million, said developer David Hillman, president of Southern Management Corp. of Vienna, Va.

The nearly completed Standard has just one signed tenant, who hopes to move in Nov. 1, but more than a dozen others are interested, said Hillman, who has bet millions on downtown's potential to become more of a neighborhood.

"I just think it is so terrific," he said of his latest endeavor, "that we're going to be overrun with prospects."

Prospective tenants include employees at Mercy and other downtown workers, and "anybody with money, green money," he said. Units range from an $860-a-month studio to a two-bedroom loft for $2,250 a month.

Hillman bought a nearby parking garage. He said he is willing to help pay for new sidewalks and lights in the city-owned Preston Gardens park across St. Paul. Improvements there, he believes, would make it more inviting for tenants to visit shops and restaurants on nearby Charles Street. So far, the only business tenant lined up for his building is a deli.

Views are impressive from the top floor of the U-shaped Standard. On a clear day, you can see Towson to the north and the harbor to the southeast. Due south is the wall of skyscrapers a few blocks away. To the northwest are Mount Vernon and the Washington Monument.

The apartments are thoroughly modern, but on the second floor some units have original brass windows and fixtures.

A few lower units have outdoor patios, but a possible disadvantage is that tenants on higher floors can gaze down on them.

Who would want that?

"Exhibitionists," predicted construction foreman Terry Cogar, who gave a recent tour.

Cogar said the Standard, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was in terrible shape when demolition work began in September 2000.

"If the building would've set by itself for two or three years, I'm not sure we could've saved it," he said.

About 40 percent of the mortar on the limestone facade had to be replaced. And much of the detailed plasterwork on the 28-foot-high vaulted ceiling in the lobby was made from molds.

Everything was done to reflect the original appearance, Cogar said, and all of the Tennessee pink marble in the lobby is genuine.

Something Cogar never did find during the top-to-bottom overhaul were bullet holes from a long-ago murder. On Sept. 23, 1930, the president of the Western Maryland Railway, Maxwell Byers, was shot to death by a company executive.

Now those old railroad offices are about to become somebody's home.

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