Vision for tower on verge of fruition

Couple, city near deal to turn Bromo Seltzer edifice into art spaces

October 22, 2005|By EDWARD GUNTS | EDWARD GUNTS,SUN REPORTER

Local arts supporters Sylvia and Eddie Brown are jump-starting a long-stalled effort to convert Baltimore's historic Bromo Seltzer tower to artists' studios by participating in a public-private partnership that would enable them to purchase the 94-year-old building from the city.

Under the agreement, which Mayor Martin O'Malley is scheduled to announce Monday, the city would sell the building at 15 S. Eutaw St. for $1 to a newly formed company that would transform the 15-story tower into 15 to 20 artists' studios.

The sale would pave the way for construction to begin early next year on a $1.5 million renovation - considered a key redevelopment project for downtown's west side.

"Our only interest is in preserving this historic structure and making it available for artists," said Sylvia Brown. "It's not for somebody who is well-established. These studios will be for artists who really need the help."

One of Baltimore's most distinctive landmarks, built to resemble a 13th-century Florentine watch tower and later donated to the city, the building has been vacant since the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture moved out in March 2002.

The Browns would replace construction magnate Willard Hackerman as financial partners of the limited liability company (a cross between a partnership and a corporation that provides certain financial protections to its members) that would acquire and renovate the arts tower. An entity formed by Baltimore's Office of Promotion and the Arts would be the managing member of the company. After 42 years, ownership of the building would revert to the city.

Hackerman backed away from plans to invest in the project in late 2004, the same time he pulled out of a highly publicized land acquisition deal in St. Mary's County. His withdrawal delayed the tower's renovation.

Nearly a year later, the project is moving ahead, said Bill Gilmore, head of the city's Office of Promotion and the Arts. "It's going to happen, and the Browns are going to be instrumental in providing some of the capital. ... It's public-private partnership at its best."

The Bromo Seltzer tower is the latest of several high-profile arts projects to receive support from Glen Arm residents Eddie Brown, founder and president of Brown Capital Management, and his wife, Sylvia.

They donated $6 million to help build and maintain the glass-clad Brown Center at the Maryland Institute College of Art and $1 million to expand the African-American collection of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

They have also supported initiatives at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.

The Browns said they learned about the Bromo Seltzer tower project from Martin P. Azola, a preservation-oriented contractor with whom they have worked closely.

After reading an article in The Sun about Hackerman's decision not to invest in the Bromo Seltzer tower renovation, and the setback it represented for Baltimore's west side, Azola suggested that the Browns consider investing in the project, and they agreed.

The Browns' decision was influenced by the experience of their daughter, painter Tonya Ingersol, who graduated three years ago from MICA. "When our daughter was looking for studio space at a fairly reasonable cost, it was difficult to find," says Eddie Brown. He added that the renovated tower could be an "invigorating environment" for artists.

Built as part of the factory that made Bromo Seltzer, a headache remedy, and donated to the city in the 1960s, the Bromo Seltzer tower was home to the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture for nearly three decades, starting in 1974.

City employees moved out after the agency merged with the old Office of Promotion to create the Office of Promotion and the Arts, with offices on Redwood Street. Gilmore, head of the combined agency, has been working since then to find an appropriate use.

The tower has proved difficult to renovate because each floor is only 900 square feet - less than many one-bedroom apartments.

The city's plan calls for the tower to contain studios on its upper floors, plus commercial space at street level. Schamu, Machowski and Greco of Baltimore is the architectural firm.

In 2004, voters approved a bond issue that will provide $500,000 in partial funding, with additional money coming from the Baltimore Development Corp., the Maryland Heritage Authority, the Neighborhood Partnership Program and the sale of tax credits, among other sources.

Under legal agreements that are being prepared for approval by the city's Board of Estimates, the Browns, or an entity they create, will be 99 percent shareholders in the limited liability company that will purchase the arts tower.

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