A look at how the mighty have fallen

Back story

September 16, 2006|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

A Wednesday-morning crowd stood in the grand lobby of the venerable Beaux Arts-style B&O Building at Baltimore and Charles streets, taking in the grandeur of its marble staircases, cobalt-blue stained-glass windows and vaulted ceilings illuminated by small white lights bursting from plaster rosettes.

They sipped white sparkling grape juice from plastic champagne flutes while noshing on light hors d'oeuvres and pieces of cake trimmed in B&O royal blue-colored icing.

Plenty of railroad memorabilia was present, including a miniature B&O freight train that endlessly chased itself around a circle of track on a small layout installed for the occasion.

Among the guests present toasting the building on its 100th birthday were a number of veteran B&O employees who had worked in the 13-story building during its halcyon days as the railroad's corporate and operating headquarters.

Just a few blocks north, while M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., and Dave Shackelford, B&O Railroad Museum curator, were extolling the building's historic significance and preservation, workers were busily preparing the historic Rochambeau apartments, also built in 1906, for demolition that is expected to begin sometime today.

The Maryland Court of Appeals refused to hear an appeal by preservationists Tuesday, and once this final obstacle standing in the way of the Archdiocese of Baltimore's plans to demolish the building and install a prayer garden on the site had been removed, officials didn't waste a moment in bringing in equipment and manpower needed to destroy this fine building.

Being an architectural preservationist (or just having an interest in old buildings) can be a heart-breaking pursuit, especially when a Rochambeau falls or you walk into the B&O Building and realize that its $20 million restoration in the early 1980s by the Oliver T. Carr Co., a Washington real estate firm, was less than successful and remains so.

Early on, the restoration effort earned the scorn of preservationists because many original components, such as Circassian walnut and English oak paneling, was sold off along with mahogany office doors whose distinctive and elegant bronze escutcheons were embossed "B&O."

Woodwork from the third-floor president's suite and adjoining boardroom and private dining room was removed along with Circassian walnut from other offices, according to James D. Dilts, a Baltimore author and architectural historian.

"Some was reinstalled in a ninth-floor conference room and in a ground-floor jewelry store. The University of Maryland University Club at Paca and Redwood streets got some," Dilts said yesterday. "The Counselor's Library in the Baltimore County Courthouse has some of the woodwork from the B&O Building."

The original heavy bronze front doors that faced Charles Street have resurfaced in the Hard Rock Cafe in the Inner Harbor, while other woodwork and details have been dispersed to the four winds.

The marble floor in the lobby remains hidden under a nondescript rug, and the marble floors on the building's upper floors have been removed. Decorative marble grilles from the building's bank of 10 elevators were jettisoned during the restoration, and the chandelier suspended from the lobby ceiling is clearly not original to the room.

And there are other lingering leftovers from the restoration that still annoy a quarter-century later, such as the window replacements that contain fewer mullions than the originals. The explanation at the time was that the new windows allowed more light into the building for office workers.

The B&O Building opened at midnight Sept. 12, 1906, when more than 5,000 electric lights "burst into fire and presented a grand spectacle," reported The Sun.

Designed by Parker & Thomas in the shape of an H, the building at 2 N. Charles St. replaced the railroad's former office building on the northwest corner of Baltimore and Calvert streets, which had been destroyed in the Great Fire of 1904.

"The exterior of the new building is dignified, impressive and monumental in design, with sufficient carving and ornamental work to greatly enhance its beauty," reported The Sun.

The building's features included pneumatic tube service, a filtered water supply, steam vacuum heating ("air filtered and washed," reported the newspaper), and two safety vaults.

Two large "toilet rooms" on each floor with Italian marble floors and white tiles were fitted out with "mahogany wardrobes" and had hot and cold water and ice-cold filtered water."

"This building was viewed as an emblem of the resurgence of Baltimore after the fire and was one of the first high-rises. It also showed that the city was determined to rebuild," Dilts said.

Oscar G. Murray, the B&O president, chose to move into his office suite Sept. 13.

"The structure is 13 stories high; President Murray started in the railroad service January 13, 1872; he was elected the thirteenth president of the road; and today is the thirteenth day of the month," reported The Sun. "Many successful ... events of President Murray's career are linked to the number 13."

The newspaper also noted that his office was No. 13 and his phone number was the same.

Perhaps one of the most compelling features of the building's exterior is the statuary over its main entrance. Mercury and an allegorical feature cradling a locomotive represent transportation and commerce.

"It predates the statuary at Grand Central Terminal in New York and was designed by John Evans & Co. of Boston," Dilts said.

"The architects were top-shelf guys, and what they designed was a very cosmopolitan and stately building as it sits there," said Walter G. Schamu, a Baltimore architect and architectural historian.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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