Discovering the new beauty of a revitalized downtown

November 01, 2003|By JACQUES KELLY

I'M AS frustrated as the next guy at all the traffic tie-ups downtown, now knotted up in one of its periodic frenzies of new construction. I watch the meter on my taxi click away as the line of cars remains immobile, while a concrete mixer deposits a fresh batch to Fayette and Howard streets.

So, one day, I said "enough" and just got out and walked and walked. Along the way, I did some snooping and investigating. It's time to take a look at the new Baltimore that has been refreshed and rebuilt over the summer and fall of 2003.

Certainly the best story in the oldest part of downtown, a section that incidentally was never touched by the 1904 fire, is along Howard and Eutaw streets. There's an amazing apartment house rising along Fayette Street. It's tucked in around a number of historic and wonderful 19th-century buildings.

As I looked, I couldn't help thinking that this is what downtown urban renewal ought to be. Save the best things, along with the B-grade very good things, and build around them. If that had been the prevailing sentiment in the 1950s and `60s, we might have a very different Charles Center and Inner Harbor, one with the Fava Iron Building still standing, along with the old Sun Building, the Century Theater and many, many other treasures that were sadly ground to dust.

I walked up to the upper decks of the parking garage that replaced the old Ford's Theatre to get a better perspective on the neighborhood. I looked northward to the splendid old Congress Hotel on West Franklin Street and started thinking about how it's been made into apartments. Then I glanced up and spotted a pedestrian bridge from the parking garage to the old Hecht's/May department store, now also an apartment house.

All of a sudden, the garage's mechanical gates started going up to permit entry into a reserved parking section for people who live right downtown.

This got me thinking. Shouldn't I start changing my perception of old Baltimore?

A day later I asked to see the model apartments at another saved and freshly renovated downtown structure, the Munsey Building at Fayette and Calvert. It seemed to me the place just opened after a lengthy reconstruction, but I was told the first apartments were completed about a year ago and are now about 80 percent occupied.

What a beauty this skyscraper is now. I can well recall the day I applied for a mortgage at the old Equitable Trust Co., which had its headquarters here for so long. The banking floor was a bit drab, but that's not the case today.

I took an elevator to an upper floor. The elevator lobby was splendidly preserved with all its mosaic tiles intact. From certain apartments that were still available, I could make out little segments of blue harbor water.

But the best treats were the majestic city views - the clock tower at City Hall, the Mitchell Court House, the old post office, and best of all, our beloved Battle Monument. It's about time we can start enjoying the treasures of old, overlooked downtown Baltimore again.

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