Tower could be used for art studios


Plan might boost area around west downtown

April 21, 2003|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Local artists work in former schools, old mill buildings, converted lofts. So why not put artists' studios in Baltimore's historic Arts Tower?

That's the latest idea under consideration for the vacant tower, also known as the Bromo Seltzer Tower, at 15 S. Eutaw St.

"There's a need for more artists' studio space, and I just think there's a lot of appeal to the idea of having artists work in the arts tower," said Bill Gilmore, executive director of Baltimore's Office of Promotion and the Arts. "It's such an important icon on the city skyline."

Modeled after a 13th-century stone watch tower in Florence, Italy, the 15-story tower is one of the most unusual structures in downtown Baltimore. It was designed by Joseph Evans Sperry and constructed by Capt. Isaac Emerson in 1911 as part of the factory that made the headache remedy Bromo Seltzer. After the Bromo Seltzer business moved out of state in the 1960s, the tower was donated to the city.

For more than two decades the tower was home of the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture, the municipal agency that conceived Baltimore's annual Artscape festival and worked on other arts-related initiatives. But employees moved out last spring after the agency was merged with the old Office of Promotion to create the Office of Promotion and the Arts.

Before the merger, city housing officials sought proposals for redevelopment of the tower. They received two bids from developers who wanted to convert it to upscale housing, but the city didn't deem either bid acceptable. One group wanted to buy the tower for $280,000 - less than a new Canton rowhouse.

Gilmore said he has remained concerned about the fate of the arts tower in the year since city employees moved out, even though his agency no longer has day-to-day responsibility for it.

He thinks one possible reuse scenario would be to convert the upper floors to artists' studios, and possibly open a gallery at street level. He suggests such a venture might be modeled after School 33, the former public school in South Baltimore that is leased to artists.

Filling such a prominent building with working artists, he said, would be a powerful symbol of the city's support for the arts - and consistent with the efforts to revitalize the west side of downtown.

Gilmore said he has been intrigued by the writings of Richard Florida, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who argues that the cities best poised to thrive in the 21st century are those that have vibrant downtowns and nurture the arts.

In his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida notes that large employers in the past may have located their offices where they received economic incentives to do so. But these days, Florida said, many employers want to be in cities where there are strong signs of artistic creativity, because that's where many of the most talented employees want to live. He cites Austin and Seattle as examples of cities where talented young employees choose to live in part because of the vibrant art scenes.

Each floor of the 308-foot Bromo Seltzer Tower measures approximately 30 feet by 30 feet - about 900 square feet in all. Twelve floors are occupiable and served by an elevator; the others are behind the clock faces near the top and served only by stairs. The occupiable floors have relatively high ceilings and large windows that let in plenty of natural light.

Besides School 33, the Office of Promotion and the Arts oversees operation of such city-controlled properties as the Top of the World observation deck, the Pier 6 concert tent and the Cloisters mansion in Baltimore County.

Gilmore said his specific interest is in leasing the Bromo Seltzer Tower as artists' work space, not residences. But before city officials can move ahead with any such plan, he said, they would need to know what kinds of artists might be attracted to the building, what must be done to accommodate them, what the renovation work might cost and who would pay for it.

For example, he said, city codes require that public buildings have at least two ways out in case of an emergency, and the tower has only one set of stairs. How could a second exit be created without significantly altering the building's appearance? Would any of the portable fire-escape systems now on the market for high-rise office buildings be sufficient? Is the tower's fire suppression system adequate?

Another challenge, Gilmore said, is that the city has no money to spend for extensive renovations, although it might be able to raise funds for that purpose. The city needs to know how much artists would pay for studio space, he said, and whether that rent would be enough to cover the building's operating costs. Could it give tours to the top to supplement the rent?

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