The tiny floors inside Baltimore's historic Bromo Seltzer Tower are about to get even tinier, but it's for a good cause.
Part of each floor will be cut out to create a second stairway within the shell of the 15-story building, for use in case of fire.
The change is part of a $1.1 million plan to convert the tower to artists' studios by late 2005 without adversely altering the building's distinctive appearance.
Plans to renovate the city-owned tower cleared a major hurdle last week, when city voters approved a bond issue that will provide $500,000 to start the work.
"We have enough to move forward," said Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, the city agency behind the conversion plan. "We should have artists in there by the end of next year."
"There's a lot of interest in it," said Jody Albright, project director for the arts agency. "I've taken quite a few artists through. We're think it's going to be a tremendous success. It's such a wonderful building that you want to be up there all the time."
The Bromo Seltzer Tower at 15 S. Eutaw St., also known as the Baltimore Arts Tower, is one of city's best-known landmarks.
Modeled after a 13th-century stone watch tower in Florence, Italy, it was designed by Joseph Evans Sperry and built 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, it was home to the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture. 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, located on Redwood Street. Gilmore, the agency's director, has been working since then to find an appropriate use for the tower and has long been intrigued by the idea of converting it to artists' studios. Last year, his agency hired SMG Architects to be the project architect.
The need to create a second means of escape in case of a fire has been a sticking point in the renovation effort, because of the building's status as a historic landmark. The Fire Department requires two stairways for safety. But preservationists have been concerned that a conventional fire escape would mar the appearance of the slender tower.
In addition, part of the arts agency's funding strategy calls for raising money by working with an investor, who would earn tax credits for historic preservation assuming the renovation complies with federal restoration standards. If the building's appearance is significantly altered, the project could lose its eligibility for tax credits.
Albright credits Walter Schamu, the president of SMG Architects, with suggesting the idea of creating a second stairway inside the tower's shell, rather than adding any sort of stair to the exterior.
The stair would be created at the tower's northwest corner, in place of an elevator shaft and part of the floor. Each level has 900 square feet of space to start with; creating a second stairway reduces to 422 square feet the amount of leasable space per floor. Albright and Gilmore say that should be enough to accommodate one or more artists per floor, depending on the artist's medium.
Schamu's solution has been accepted by both the Fire Department and the preservation experts. Fire Department officials have even allowed the second stair to be 6 feet wide rather than the standard measure of 8 feet wide, to maximize the amount of usable space on each floor.
With the bond issue providing $500,000, the arts agency is counting on the sale of preservation tax credits to raise the remaining funds needed to complete construction.
Albright and Gilmore said they are working with a potential investor and its identity will be disclosed when financing documents are presented to Baltimore's Board of Estimates for approval in the next several weeks. If the Board of Estimates approves the financing plan this fall, construction would start next spring and take about six months to complete.
Under the latest plan, the arts agency will manage the tower and lease space to individual artists, as it does with School 33 in South Baltimore. Rates have not been set, but the typical lease would last for two years.
Gilmore and Albright said they expect the tower to accommodate 15 to 20 artists. They say the agency will be looking for artists who don't need a lot of square footage, such as graphic designers or jewelers or writers, and that the tower probably won't be suitable for painters who work with large canvases or sculptors who work with heavy materials.
The tower will have restrooms and "slop sink" areas on alternating floors. There will also be space at street level and possibly on the mezzanine level for a commercial enterprise, most likely a gallery or coffee shop.