Historic landmark reborn once again

Reopening: Five years after shutting down, the Phoenix Shot Tower is set for another comeback.

October 22, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

One Saturday night in September 1878, the Shot Tower on downtown's east side looked like a 215-foot candle ready to blow. A fire raged inside the brick cylinder where workers for decades had made shot by dropping molten lead.

"At that time, the spectacle viewed from any elevated point about the city, or from the harbor or river, was strikingly grand," reported The Sun.

"The tower was enveloped in flames, and from the top they shot far up into the air, giving to the distant looker-on the appearance of a great column of fire."

Somehow the pile of 1.1 million bricks erected in 1828 survived the inferno to produce plenty more birdshot and buckshot. The tower has since endured a city-led effort to condemn it in 1903, an abortive plan to raze it for a gas station in 1924 and a fiscal meltdown by the City Life Museums that closed it in 1997.

On Friday, the 174-year-old Phoenix Shot Tower -- named both for the company that built it and its knack for rebounding from certain demise -- will come back again, minus an apocryphal tale involving Edgar Allan Poe.

For the first time in five years, the public can go in and gaze up through the wooden rafters of what is said to be the tallest shot tower built in the United States, and one of the last standing.

"This is the herald of what's going to come for that neighborhood," said Anne Pomykala, a Green Spring Valley innkeeper leasing the city-owned tower for $1 a year. She also plans to revive the nearby Carroll Mansion and, eventually, to open an inn next to the mansion.

Pomykala pointed to other changes on the area's cultural landscape. The Flag House and War of 1812 Museum on Pratt Street is expanding. Work should start soon on the Reginald F. Lewis Maryland Museum of African-American History and Culture at Pratt and President streets.

In addition, the African Art Museum of Maryland will open a new venue early next year in the iron-fronted Fava Building that Pomykala runs on Front Street.

The Shot Tower, on Fayette Street at the base of the Jones Falls Expressway, is re-emerging at a time when terrorism and talk of war have renewed interest in older landmarks.

"Historical and heritage monuments have become even more popular with out-of-town visitors," said Dan Lincoln, senior vice president of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. The tower "helps celebrate Baltimore's history and the nation's history, which is very important given all the events of the last year."

Visitors will be asked for donations, and hours will be limited: Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Hours might be cut further in winter.

The public will be kept to the lower two of 14 floors. Information panels teach that the tower's base is 40 feet wide and has walls 4 1/2 feet thick. They tell of how Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll of Carrollton laid the cornerstone in 1828.

"It is such an incredible building when you consider how they constructed it -- not using exterior scaffolding," said Alan Gephardt, executive director of Carroll Museums Inc. He has spent $18,000 cleaning pigeon gunk and making other upgrades, but said the tower is solid.

The panels also have old photos taken from the tower's pinnacle. One shows the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1904, another the quick rebuilding of the city. A 1949 photo shows Johns Hopkins Hospital when its domed building dominated the horizon.

The Shot Tower's history has been dusted off, thanks to the sleuthing of Gephardt, 46, who scoured old newspapers.

The tower fire in 1878 is one incident that has been added to a light and sound show that mimics falling lead with blinking red lights and uses recorded voices to portray workers.

The blaze was so bad that firefighters had to leave. "They had been gone but about six minutes when one of the great iron kettles and about ten tons of lead fell, crashing through everything on their downward course," according to The Sun.

"It soon became apparent that nothing could be done to stay the progress of the conflagration, and the firemen thenceforward devoted their energies to saving surrounding property."

The fire burned itself out in a matter of hours, and the brick structure survived.

Four years earlier, another event underscored the perils of working in the tower. A dumbwaiter reportedly fell from a height of nearly 200 feet, with employees Michael McManus and Simon Cullen on it.

According to The Sun, a cable malfunctioned and the men fell "with the speed of lightning ... striking the bricks with a crash like thunder. The planks of the platform were shivered into splinters and sent spinning in every direction."

The men "complained of great pain" but were conscious and broke no bones. Amazed doctors surmised that 1,700 pounds of lead on the platform deadened the force of the fall, saving their lives.

Another tale is local urban legend, Gephardt has concluded. Poet Edgar Allan Poe, it was said, once claimed someone would "fly" off the tower and land safely. As best Gephardt can tell, Poe never said it, and nobody was dumb enough to try the stunt.

The tower stopped making shot in 1892, a victim of new technology. A decade later, it dodged a city inspector's efforts to raze it.

A narrower escape came in 1924, when the Union Oil Co. wanted to demolish it and put a gas station in its place. Mayor Howard W. Jackson's approval caused an uproar, but a citizen-led Committee for the Preservation of the Shot Tower could not raise the $27,000 needed to buy it.

"Six weeks from now," a wrecking company official said, "the people of Baltimore won't know there was such a thing as a Shot Tower."

But opponents redoubled efforts, and the owner lowered the price to $17,000. The target was hit, saving the Shot Tower.

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