Youthful encounters influenced Chalfant's interests

WAY BACK WHEN

Architect studied railroads, miniature theaters and more

August 28, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

If they're lucky, most people have time to seriously immerse themselves in one or two interests during their lifetime, but that wasn't the case with Randolph Wakefield Chalfant, who died last week at 85.

Chalfant - a retired Baltimore architect called Randy - had voluminous interests that he vigorously pursued despite ill health and failing eyesight until the end of his life.

I knew his interest in architecture came from his father, a Pittsburgh architect. But I wondered how he had become fascinated with railroading, steam shipping, miniature theaters, marine engines, yachts and Christmas gardens.

Randy developed sets of friends and experts with each interest and in some cases, there was cross-pollination, such as a Baltimore architect who liked railroads and ships.

His love of toy theaters went back to his boyhood and over the years, he compiled a collection that had been popular in England, Germany and Denmark during the 19th century.

He also gathered a large library on the subject and, several years ago built his own toy theater out of foam board.

A son, Fred, told me the other day that until his father's death, he was still searching dealer's catalogs, often written in German, for theaters.

There was no dimming of intellectual curiosity as Randy approached the end of his life. He was not only comforted by surrounding family and friends, but also the flotsam and jetsam of years of collecting - books, documents, photographs, notes and records - that filled the rooms of his house in the city's Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood.

With efficiency worthy of a historical society or library, Randy organized his various research materials by floor.

Books on theater and stage design were in the basement. And in ascending order: first floor, architecture; second floor, railroad; third, maritime.

Another interest was the music of Bohuslav Martinu, the Czechoslovakian composer of operas, symphonies, film and incidental music and piano and violin concerti. He could speak as authoritatively about Martinu as he could lecture on "Charles Reeder and the Development of Marine Steam in Maryland."

I'm convinced Randy fell under the spell of railroading and shipping during his youth in Pittsburgh, then a major rail hub and inland port.

The city was crisscrossed by a spaghetti-like network of tracks that belonged to numerous railroads, including Randy's all-time favorite, the Pennsylvania.

And most likely, as a kid, he watched the long coal and freight drags as well as the sleek passenger trains pulled by giant steam engines, which rhythmically chugged and whistled through the city and environs.

He also, no doubt, had exposure to the paddlewheel riverboats with their great plumes of black coal smoke that still operated on the Ohio and Monongahela rivers, along with the towboats and barges that delivered raw materials and carried away finished goods.

"He was a very intellectual guy who always had insightful analysis of what was going on in the railroad world historically," said Herbert H. Hardwood Jr., a retired railroad executive and acclaimed rail historian and author. "Being around Randy was always very stimulating."

Another of Randy's lifelong passions began during childhood visits to Baltimore.

He was fascinated by the old Calvert Station, the twin-towered Italianate structure in the 500 block of N. Calvert St., designed for the old Baltimore & Susquehanna Railroad by John R. Niernsee and J. Crawford Neilson in 1850, founders of the city's first architectural firm.

The station, which later passed into the corporate ownership of successor Northern Central Railway and later the Pennsylvania Railroad, remained until 1949 when it was demolished to make way for the current Sun building.

The station became the genesis for a lifelong research project into the life and commissions of Niernsee and Neilson, which is now being edited into a book that will be published under the sponsorship of the Baltimore Architectural Foundation.

Randy wrote of the industrial as well as architectural importance of Calvert Station in a 1973 article published in Maryland Historical Magazine.

"Calvert Station occupies a significant position in the history of American railroad station architecture," he wrote. "It was a prototype of the planned, multi-purpose terminal in place of the helter-skelter proliferation of miscellaneous buildings."

"Randy was an impressive digger and that's what it takes. It's almost heroic work," said Charles B. Duff Jr., head of the Midtown Development Corp. and a longtime friend.

Shortly before his death, Randy made a visit to an old friend, two salvaged doors from the Calvert Station that had been owned by Mary Elizabeth McNair, who used them as a screen in her Federal Hill home.

After her death last year, the doors, which are 3 inches thick, 8 feet tall and weigh several hundred pounds, were left to the architectural foundation.

"In the spring, Randy came down to a garage on Morton Street, where the doors were stored, to see them," said Walter Schamu, a Baltimore architect. "He was truly moved by something that had been salvaged from the building. And as far as he was concerned, he was touching a piece of the true cross of Niernsee and Neilson."

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