Cashing out of bank turned club


Historic Trust building up for sale

done in by liquor laws, owner says

March 29, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

It survived the Great Fire of 1904, but it couldn't survive Baltimore's nightclub wars.

So earlier this month, owner Nicholas Piscatelli put up a sign indicating that the former Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Co. building at 202 E. Redwood St., converted in 2001 to a lavish party palace called Redwood Trust, is for sale. The asking price for the building, fixtures and liquor license is $3 million.

Piscatelli created the sort of upscale nightclub that one might find in New York or South Beach, with VIP lounges, a $200,000 Phazon sound system and room for 1,000 patrons.

The conversion saved the building from possible demolition and won an award from Baltimore Heritage, a preservation advocacy group.

But the business was a casualty of state liquor laws that prohibit nightclubs from staying open past 2 a.m., Piscatelli said.

"Nobody wanted it to work more than I did," he said. "I really thought we had something there."

Piscatelli said Redwood Trust was busy for the first six months, and he was hopeful that local laws would be changed to extend operating hours.

When that didn't happen, he said, he wasn't able to attract the patrons he hoped would come from Washington and other areas where bars can stay open past 2.

Piscatelli sold the business in August and it began trading as the Mint, but the tenants defaulted on their lease and he took the business back. He unsuccessfully challenged the liquor laws in court. The building has been closed since January and will remain closed, he said, except when it is rented out for catered events.

The inability to stay open past 2 a.m. was "the major factor" in the decision to sell, he said. "That really put a damper on our club. We opened up assuming we could get a license for that, and it was geared up for that. ... We were always hopeful."

Under the state liquor laws pertaining to Baltimore City, restaurants with a Class B liquor license can stay open past 2 a.m., but they can't serve alcohol between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., and all patrons must be seated, according to Nathan Irby, executive secretary of the Board of Liquor License Commissioners for Baltimore City.

Bars and nightclubs that have a Class BD7 beer, wine and liquor license but not full-service dining, such as Redwood Trust, aren't allowed to serve alcohol - and can't even permit patrons to stay on the premises - after 2 a.m., Irby said.

Certain bars in Washington, by contrast, can stay open and serve alcohol past 2 a.m., depending on the terms of their individual licenses.

Designed in the Richardsonian-Romanesque style by Wyatt and Sperry, the 19,000-square- foot Redwood Street building opened in 1886 and is considered one of the most significant works of architecture in downtown Baltimore. It's notable for its arched windows, carved stonework and thick walls that helped it survive the 1904 fire.

Mercantile closed its branch there in 1993 and moved its mortgage department out the following year. Piscatelli bought the building for $500,000 in February 2000 and says he spent $4.5 million on the conversion. The building has a main level with a dance floor where the bankers used to be, a mezzanine level overlooking the main floor, and more rooms in the basement. One walk-in vault was transformed to a VIP lounge.

As part of the conversion, Piscatelli repaired the roof, installed new mechanical and electrical systems, and restored much of the original detail, including an ornate ceiling that was hidden during a previous renovation. Kann & Associates and KingDesign were the architects on the conversion.

Piscatelli said he's doubtful that the building could succeed as a nightclub, as long as the liquor laws stay the way they are.

"I just don't think Baltimore can support a mega dance club like that," he said. "We did everything, believe me."

He said he thinks the building could be an ideal setting for a steakhouse or some other national restaurant chain. He points to new hotels just open or under construction along Redwood Street and other signs of renewal downtown.

The building also could work as a catering facility or office space, he said,

"The building is functional for almost any use," he added. "When we bought it, it really wasn't. We did a lot to preserve it and take it back to its original condition."

Preservationists and planners say they hope the improvements made so far will help the building attract a new occupant.

"My sense is that the investment that they put into the nightclub fixed the systems and the structure in a way that added to the building's longevity," said Al Barry, an urban-planning consultant who heads A. B. Associates. "It's a different situation than it was in several years ago, when the building needed a lot of work."

Roger Katzenberg, a partner of Kann & Associates, said he thinks it has the potential to be a successful retail space for a company seeking a large downtown location.

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