SMG will move into the Brink's building

CRITIC'S CORNER

Architecture

November 14, 2005|By EDWARD GUNTS | EDWARD GUNTS,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

When people talk about "green architecture," they're usually referring to buildings that are designed to be environmentally sensitive and energy efficient.

But when architect Walter Schamu talks about his latest "green" project, he can't avoid the references to dollar bills as well as energy savings.

Schamu and his partners at Schamu Machowski Greco, Tony Machowski and Victor Greco, recently acquired the old Brink's Inc. armored car company terminal in downtown Baltimore for $700,000 and plan to convert it by spring to headquarters for their 24-year-old design firm.

Try as he might, Schamu can't entirely sidestep questions about why an architecture firm would need such a well-fortified building. Is it because they have such wealthy clients? That they charge such high fees they need armored vehicles to transport their loot?

"We've heard it all," he says. "We hope people don't think Brink's is still here, once we move in."

Actually, the architects at SMG have many reasons for wanting to move from a renovated carriage house in midtown to the old Brink's building at 231 Holliday St. - last used by the security company more than a decade ago.

First of all, they like the building, which is one block north of City Hall and on the same block as the historic Peale Museum. Built in the 1920s, it has a limestone and granite facade and a bulletproof, second-level bay window from which armed guards used to watch Brink's trucks drive in and out.

On the lower level, trucks were stored and repaired. The upper level, with vaults that were taken out by a previous owner, was used for counting money and storing valuables. After World War I, most large cities in America gained buildings such as this, usually near downtown banks and offices.

Schamu, a Federal Hill resident, said he saw a "For Sale" sign on the building one weekend when he and his wife Nancy went to the nearby farmer's market under the Jones Falls Expressway. His firm's lease was getting close to expiring, so he decided to investigate.

Inside, the building has the 5,000 square feet of space needed by SMG. The architects figured the lower level could be used to create a new entranceway and on-site parking for 20 cars - a rare commodity for any downtown staff. They liked the security features, from the gun turret on the front to the solid bars and reinforced concrete construction.

The second level has brick walls, steel columns and a high ceiling with deep exposed trusses - perfect for a design studio. That level was "an epiphany for an architect to come to," Schamu said. "Wide open spaces. Great light. We'll all be on one floor, which will be great for us. And my office will have a view of City Hall."

The location works well for an architect's office, too. The surrounding area is on the upswing, with the recent facelift of War Memorial Plaza and luxury condominiums nearing completion across the street. There's easy access to the Jones Falls Expressway. Plus, the Brink's building is close to municipal offices where architects and contractors must go to obtain city building permits and present their plans for review.

One of SMG's projects is the conversion of the nearby Peale Museum to a "history center" housing preservation- and history-related organizations such as Baltimore Heritage and the Baltimore Architecture Foundation, which Schamu helped establish in 1987.

The new owners intend to restore the facade with its Brink's lettering, while adding a banner to indicate the new use. Inside, they want to add a clerestory "light monitor" in the roof to let in more natural light. They plan to treat the conversion as an environmentally "green" project, with a partially planted roof to cut down on rainwater runoff, operable windows, "rapidly renewable" materials, energy efficient mechanical systems and other eco-friendly features.

"It's a good chance to us to experiment," Schamu said. "It's going to be very cutting-edge - not old fuddy-duddy Baltimore."

Charles Patterson is serving as SMG's lead architect for this project, which is expected to cost $200,000. Construction will start next month. In the meantime, Schamu wants to obtain more information about the building, including the name of the architect and the original plans, and he'd like to talk to Brink's employees who worked there. He'd also like to find a Brink's truck to put by the entrance, and he talks of throwing a pre-construction party in the space with a 1920s, flappers-era theme.

SMG has worked on some of the most prestigious restoration projects in Baltimore, from the Alex. Brown & Sons banking room that survived the 1904 fire to the Maryland Club to the Bromo Seltzer Tower. The Brink's building doesn't fall within a historic district and has not been accorded any sort of landmark status.

Schamu admits that it's ironic his firm would be moving to a building with no landmark designation. But he's convinced it's worth the investment, with its "stoic facade," on-site parking and short distance to city offices, including the finance department.

"This will be a great move," he said. "A lot is happening here. And think how easy it will be to pay the water bill."

ed.gunts@baltsun.com

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