Remedy for artists' headache

City OKs financing to convert Bromo tower into studios

August 17, 2006|By JILL ROSEN | JILL ROSEN,SUN REPORTER

Under the blue glow of Baltimore's castle-like tower where people once promoted headache powder, creative types will soon be making art.

The long-discussed plan to convert downtown's signature Bromo Seltzer Tower into studios for artists advanced yesterday as city officials approved a financing plan for the $1.9 million project.

In a city where affordable, dependable workspace fills as quickly as it opens, artists reacted enthusiastically to news that the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower could open by March.

The idea of working in what has to be the quirkiest leg of Baltimore's skyline only adds to the appeal.

"Are you kidding? That visibility and that type of high-profile space?" asked Anthony Walker, a marble sculptor who owns Gallery ID8 near Fells Point. "I'd kill for space in that."

Painter Jordan Faye Block, part-owner of Locust Point's Gallery Imperato, said she'd be first in line to apply for space.

"I love old Baltimore and I love buildings that are well-made and have character and persona," she said. "That always serves as inspiration."

Though the idea for the tower conversion emerged years ago, setbacks dogged the project.

Its initial benefactor backed out in 2004. Then last year after new donors, arts advocates Sylvia and Eddie Brown, stepped in with a $500,000 gift to set things back on track, planners realized they'd have to rework the design around fire department communications antennas.

But yesterday, all systems were go as the Board of Estimates approved contributing the city-owned building and spending $650,000 toward the renovation and studio operating expenses.

Officials said construction would begin within weeks and the finished studios could be revealed at a ribbon-cutting by March 1.

Baltimore's Office of Promotion and the Arts will manage the studios, which will fill 13 floors of the tower. Artists will have to apply for the space, but officials say they're seeking a variety of talents - from painters to writers, seasoned to just starting out.

On the tower's first two levels, plans involve opening a gallery and a coffee shop.

Bill Gilmore, the office's director, said private studios are not the goal, but rather space where the public is welcomed in regularly to mingle with the creators.

"We want people to get inside and see what it's like," Gilmore said.

Proponents of the city's longtime push to redevelop the west side are as encouraged as the artists by the prospect of the studios.

M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said the studios will help bring vibrancy to the city's west side.

"These artists will be out there on the street, adding to the Baltimore creative class," Brodie said. "It's the spirit and activity they will bring."

Mark Pollak, a partner at the law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Door, volunteered to handle the legal paperwork for the studio conversion pro bono, eager to revive a city landmark, particularly one that could lure people west of downtown.

"It's somewhat iconic in nature," he said of the tower. "It's really important to have this very visible symbol cleaned up and renovated."

Jed Dodds, artist director for Highlandtown's Creative Alliance at the Patterson, said artists, particularly Baltimore's artists, will be drawn to the tower, whose story is almost an homage to eccentricity.

"It's been on the kind of strange journey that Baltimore's community seems to really celebrate," Dodds said.

The founder of Bromo Seltzer, an effervescent headache remedy, commissioned the tower to complement his factory after a trip to Italy where he became smitten with a 13th-century Florentine watch tower.

Finished in 1911, in its early years the 15-story clock-top edifice at Lombard and Eutaw streets was not only an architectural anomaly, but Baltimore's tallest building.

Through the years, however, modern skyscrapers bested the tower in height and a beloved medicine bottle that once spun on its top was removed for fear it was damaging the structure.

Eventually blue lights were installed to make up for the loss of the spinning bottle and city arts officials took up residence inside in the 1970s.

The building has been vacant and deteriorating since they moved out in 2002.

"It's a funky-shaped building with great visibility, a lot of history and a good vibe," Dodds said. "I think artists will definitely appreciate it."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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