Building locks out disaster

Construction: An Ellicott City structure destroyed in the 1999 fire is rebuilt to be as catastrophe-proof as possible.

March 28, 2004|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

On a mild autumn evening in 1999, Dr. Bruce Taylor stood across the street from his three-story building at 8095 Main St. and waited for firefighters to bring the blaze under control.

When the flames were extinguished, he knew there was no hope of salvaging the structure from the six-alarm fire that tore through a block of Ellicott City's historic district.

Within days of the Nov. 9 fire, the remains of the building were demolished, and Taylor -- whose family owns other Main Street properties as well as large parcels of land in the area -- decided to build a new structure that had a better chance of surviving in the former mill town with a history of natural and man-made disasters.

"Dr. Taylor was very clear about three things," said Jared Spahn, the general contractor on the reconstruction project. "One, he wanted the building to be in harmony with the historic district; two, he wanted it to be fully flood-resistant; and three, he wanted it to be as fire-resistant as possible."

More than four years later, Spahn said, the replacement building meets the owner's goals. But the path to completion was anything but smooth.

From the logistics of undertaking a major construction project above a river, to the death of the architect halfway through the project, Spahn said nothing was easy.

"There was no place to store materials, so they had to be delivered daily," he said, "no place for the subcontractors to park, and any time we had to get a big crane in, we had to close off half of Main Street. ... I could go on for days."

Then there were the two years of wrangling with insurance companies, county permitting agencies and the local Historic District Commission.

"This is by far the most difficult building -- in terms of logistical planning -- that I've ever worked on," said Spahn, whose company, Old Town Construction, has been involved in several Main Street restoration projects.

The design of the new 12,000-square- foot building was based on a 1920s-era picture of the structure when it was a department store owned by the Rosenstock family.

The picture was discovered in the basement of another Taylor property on Main Street.

Greg Mitchell, the architect on the project who died in April 2002, worked from the photograph to incorporate elements of the original design in his plan.

"With the balconies and the ironwork, it's closer to the original building than the false facade destroyed in the fire," said Taylor, a psychiatrist and medical director of the Sheppard Pratt at Ellicott City psychiatric facility, formerly known as Taylor Manor.

Yet the 40-foot-tall building with a beige concrete facade, large windows and balconies with decorative wrought iron stands apart from other Main Street structures of granite and brick.

"I think we've been able to create a building which is both historic in its appearance and character, but modern in its amenities and construction," Taylor said.

The greatest challenge of the $950,000 project was to make the building resistant to flood and fire, while adhering to the regulations of the county's Historic District Commission, the panel that oversees the appearance of the district.

"The degree of difficulty was really very high on this particular building, given the standards we had to meet and not have a building that looks like an erector set," said architect Kate McCullough, a former colleague of Mitchell's, who took over as project architect after his death.

Nearly the entire structure is built from noncombustible materials of concrete, steel and plastic. The only wood in the building is in the stair rails, some sections of trim, and the kitchen cabinets in the third-floor apartments.

The foundation of the building, part of which crosses the Tiber Branch, is a concrete mixture with additives that makes it less permeable to water. In addition, 3-foot concrete walls are attached to the sides of the building to form a "concrete bathtub" that acts as a barrier to flooding.

Shoemaker Country, the first tenant in the rebuilt Rosenstock building, moved in November in the first-floor space. The third-floor luxury apartments are rented, and the second-floor commercial space is vacant.

John Shoemaker, manager of the furniture and home accessories store, said the large, open area is an effective showcase for the antiques and custom-built pieces on display.

"We design and build a lot of our furniture; it's newly made, but it looks old," Shoemaker said. "And we're in a building that's newly made but respects the old architecture."

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