Historic building gets a new life

The city will rent Bromo Seltzer tower space in the spring after a $1.3 million face-lift to turn it into art center

October 08, 2006|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,sun reporter

Photographer Chris Peregoy works from a darkroom on the second floor of his Baltimore rowhouse. Yesterday, he surveyed a work space with 11-foot ceilings in one of the most recognizable buildings in the downtown skyline.

He was among dozens of artists - painters, sculptors and writers - who climbed a circular staircase to the upper floors of the Bromo Seltzer tower during an open house. The 1911 Italianate landmark, a former factory and office building known for the blue glow cast from 25-foot-tall clock faces, is taking on a new life as an urban art center.

Charles Patterson, an architect who worked on the three-year project to renovate the tower, said it was gratifying to see the famed building reinvented.

"And what artist wouldn't want to say, `My studio is in the Bromo Seltzer tower?" he asked.

The building, intended by Bromo Seltzer inventor Isaac Emerson to resemble a tower in Florence, Italy, was originally home to his company, which produced a popular headache remedy. H.L. Mencken once said there were two schools of thought on the tower: those who love it and those who know better.

After the city acquired the property, it housed a government arts agency. Rising more than 200 feet over downtown at South Eutaw and West Lombard streets, it remains a beacon, visible from the stands at Camden Yards.

For the past three years, the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts rounded up $1.3 million through grants, gifts and historic tax credits to restore the tower. The new version of the tower has 30 studios for artists, from the second to the 15th floor. They will be available in the spring.

Artists, writers, photographers, sculptors and digital designers may apply to the city for work spaces, with monthly rents ranging from about $400 to $1,200. There are no apartments or living quarters in the tower.

Burnishing the beauty of a solidly built structure - with the old windows and even the radiators in working order - was the aim of the architect, Walter Schamu.

"It's a symbol that's got to be shined up," Schamu said yesterday as he greeted visitors. "For older Baltimore, you think of marble steps, rowhouses and the Bromo Seltzer tower."

Some artists found the inside look intoxicating.

Loring Cornish, 33, an artist whose mosaic work is on display in the American Visionary Arts Museum, peppered city officials and contractors with questions, as if he was ready to stake a claim.

Mary and Craig Purcell have a son studying art in Scotland, and family members are involved in creative pursuits. They were looking for a large studio.

"We're looking for our family, since we do architecture, art, Web design," Mary Purcell said. "We liked the 11th floor."

Two actors who live in Bolton Hill, Wil Love and Carl Schurr, said they weren't shopping for studio space. They just wanted to see the inside of the tower.

"I've been in Baltimore since 1971, and this building always caught my eye," Schurr said. "The light is incredible, and it helps with the revitalization of the West Side. I love old Baltimore."

Although the artist studio floors will be closed off to visitors, city officials said, a street-level coffee shop will be open to the public.

"We want artists that enjoy engaging the general public," Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore office of Promotion & the Arts, said yesterday. "Our very first application was from a writer."

Philanthropists Eddie and Sylvia Brown, who invested nearly $200,000 to get the project under way, stopped in to view the work with family members.

"Phenomenal," said Sylvia Brown. "Just beautiful."


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