Landmark could be renovated


A $1.3 million plan for Bromo Seltzer Tower

November 03, 2003|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Baltimore's vacant Bromo Seltzer tower would be converted to artist studios by next fall under a $1.3 million renovation plan developed by local arts advocates.

The Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, a quasi-public city agency, hired the architectural firm of Schamu Machowski Greco (SMG)this fall to prepare construction documents that can be used to turn the city-owned tower, last used as municipal office space, into artist studios.

The architects have also been asked to draw renderings and floor plans that can be used to raise funds and market the studios to prospective tenants. They're even exploring the idea of erecting a copy of the 65-foot-tall blue bottle of Bromo Seltzer that once rotated at the top.

"We've been told the original bottle is on a farm in Anne Arundel County, in a barn being used as an aviary," said architect Walter Schamu. "We wouldn't be able to put it back because we don't own it, but we could put up a facsimile. It would be a real kick."

Bill Gilmore, executive director of the arts agency, said he's convinced the project is feasible, based on a marketing assessment by Randall Gross Development Economics of Washington.

"The potential is very high for leasing the building because of its location, interior spaces, views and profile" as a city landmark, Gilmore said. "It has a lot going for it."

One million dollars is "a lot of money," Gilmore conceded. "But then you look at the building and think, $1 million isn't a lot of money to save something this important ... Everybody wants to see this buliding saved."

"The tower's greatest strength for artist studios and other uses is its unique role as an icon on the Baltimore skyline," Gross said in his final report. "The building is known throughout Baltimore and beyond as the Bromo Seltzer Tower, and this level of name recognition and branding would be very expensive and difficult to achieve from scratch."

In addition, "the building's many windows offer exceptional views and bathe the individual offices in natural light," Gross said. "Units on individual floors potentially offer the artists privacy, even as they are part of a large artist community."

Modeled after a 13th-century stone watch tower in Florence, Italy, the 15-story tower at 15 S. Eutaw St. was designed by Joseph Evans Sperry and constructed by Capt. Isaac Emerson in 1911 as part of the factory that made Bromo Seltzer, a headache remedy. 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. Employees moved out in the spring of 2002 after the agency was merged with the old Office of Promotion to create the Office of Promotion and the Arts, now located on Redwood Street.

Gilmore has been working for more than a year to find an appropriate use for the tower and has long been intrigued by the idea of converting it to artist studios. The Abell Foundation provided funds for the market assessment.

Gilmore said his office considered nearly a dozen firms before selecting SMG to be the architect for the tower, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. He said the firm was selected because it has extensive experience in saving historic buildings and helping owners obtain tax credits for historic preservation.

SMG is a key part of the design team restoring the Hippodrome Theater on Eutaw Street, several blocks north of the Bromo Seltzer tower. It also helped guide restoration of the Maryland Club after a seven-alarm fire and converted the old Alex. Brown & Sons headquarters to a branch of Chevy Chase Bank.

"It's fun. It's an extraordinary building. We're having a good time working on it," Schamu said of his latest commission.

"H. L. Mencken once said Baltimoreans could be divided into two groups - those who love the Emerson tower and those who know better," he quipped. "I've referred to it as a beacon for the west side development area, and it could be. Fifteen floors, with one or two artists per floor, could be exciting. It needs a good bath, though, that's for sure."

Gilmore said preliminary plans call for the first floor and mezzanine level to be converted to an art gallery, and for floors 2 to 15 to be artist studios. The basement could be a darkroom for photographers.

Each floor would have about 450 square feet of usable space. In some cases, artists would take the entire floor. But some artists, such as playwrights, may need only part of a floor. Residences have been ruled out, Gilmore said, because there's not enough space per floor for "live-work" studios, and satisfying the code requirements would be more costly.

One model for the project is School 33, the city-owned building in South Baltimore that houses artist studios and galleries and is run by Gilmore's agency.

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