Grit To Glitz

ARCHITECTURE

The last remnant of Beth Steel's Key Highway Shipyard is being removed to make way for luxury condos, marking the end of a blue-collar era.

May 10, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

When developers begin clearing a large brick warehouse on Key Highway later this month to make way for the Ritz Carlton condominiums, they won't be tearing down just another industrial building.

They will be removing from the urban landscape the last building that remains from the Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s former 42-acre Key Highway Shipyard, once one of the region's largest employers and for decades a fixture of the Inner Harbor.

Its replacement with luxury condos will be a dramatic sign of Baltimore's transformation from a gritty, blue-collar port city to an upscale urban destination where people will pay top dollar to live on the waterfront.

"It's really the last tie to the old ship repair yard, which did so magnificently there for decades," said Helen Delich Bentley, former U.S. Congress member, U.S. maritime commissioner, Sun maritime editor and all-around staunch advocate for the port of Baltimore.

"This is the last trace of what it was, what it meant, and it's going."

"It really closes a chapter" in port history, agreed Edward Giannasca, a local developer who is part of the team developing the $155 million replacement, known as the Ritz Carlton Residences -- Inner Harbor Baltimore.

At the same time, "It begins a new era for the property," Giannasca said.

The three-story "Propeller Yard" building at 801 Key Highway was constructed in 1958 and 1959 as a "safehouse" for the storage of propellers and other materials needed for the repair of ships. Because of its function, it was set at the northern tip of the shipyard, away from the bulk of the shipyard activity, and built like a fortress. Seeking a memorable name for a nondescript structure, city planner Jim Hall later dubbed it the Propeller Yard building because it was next to an open yard where ships' propellers were set in a row.

While other parts of the shipyard have given way to condominiums, apartments and townhouses over the past decade, the Propeller Yard building has remained standing until now largely because it was removed from the rest of the property and treated as a separate building parcel. Construction also has been held up because of disputes over the ownership of the land and plans for its redevelopment.

The demolition of the Propeller Yard building, which will be marked by a nighttime ceremony on May 19, is the strongest sign to date that the disputes have been resolved and construction on the replacement project is about to begin.

During the event, a claw-shaped hoe will bite chunks out of the building while fireworks burst in the sky. The event "is really a celebration of the waterfront," said Giannasca, who heads the Giannasca Development Group. "We see this as an opportunity to make a statement about the city, where it was and how far it has come."

The Bethlehem Steel Corp. purchased the shipyard in 1921 from the Baltimore Dry Docks and Shipbuilding Co. and used it to repair and refit damaged vessels. According to a 1951 Maryland Historical Society report, it repaired approximately 4,500 war-damaged ships between 1940 and 1945. At the time, Baltimore was the center of the national shipbuilding and repair boom that supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "arsenal of democracy."

Besides working on American ships, the yard repaired foreign vessels, work that called for its machine shop to produce precision parts not standard in the United States. One torpedoed ship was successfully placed back in service after two-thirds of it was destroyed. Reconditioning a Norwegian tanker required 1 million pounds of shell plating and 1.5 million pounds of internal steel, according to the historical society.

The yard also converted merchant vessels for use by the U.S. Navy, at an average cost of more than $1 million per vessel. Employment there rose from 1,500 in 1939 to more than 11,000, including 400 women, in April 1944, the peak employment month during World War II.

Bethlehem Steel continued to repair ships on Key Highway until 1982, when it closed the shipyard. Developer Richard Swirnow led a group that bought the property at auction for $24.4 million in 1986 and began building upscale residences as part of a community called HarborView.

Giannasca's group bought the 5.6-acre Propeller Yard parcel earlier this year. Others on the development team are Midtown Equities of New York and Samuel & Co. of Miami.

The property is attractive for redevelopment because it occupies a prominent location at a bend in Key Highway -- a gateway to the city for people driving into Baltimore from Interstate 95 -- and offers spectacular harbor views.

The disappearance of the Propeller Yard building will temporarily open up vistas from Key Highway and Federal Hill that haven't been available since the building was constructed.

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