New life for an old building

Hotels may open development of Oldtown area

Architecture Column

April 30, 2007|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

So many historic structures have been threatened with demolition in Baltimore lately that it almost seems hard to believe when someone moves to save a building. Especially when that someone volunteers to do so, rather than having to be prodded.

That's what an Odenton developer wants to do with the Furncraft building, an early 20th-century warehouse at 301 Fallsway that has been home to a furniture store for the past 65 years.

If all goes according to plan, the 100-year-old building will be reborn by mid-2008 as a 63-room Sleep Inn, within easy walking distance of downtown and the Inner Harbor.

Its window layout and high ceilings are perfectly suited for reuse as a hotel, and the white paint can be stripped off to reveal handsome brick facades, says the new owner, Sanket Patel of Roma Inns in Odenton. "It's a great building."

The Furncraft conversion is one of two hotels that Patel wants to build on Fallsway, near where the elevated Jones Falls Expressway comes to grade and feeds into downtown Baltimore. The second is an 11-story Cambria Suites hotel.

Preliminary designs, by MWT Architecture of Buffalo, N.Y., drew a generally positive response when Patel presented them last week to Baltimore's urban design and architecture review panel, and they go before the city's zoning board tomorrow.

Patel's idea to convert the Furncraft building to a hotel was particularly well-received.

"That's a remarkable fit for that building - the columns, the windows, the staircases," said city planning director Douglas McCoach.

While the recycling proposal appeals to city planners and preservationists, it almost didn't happen.

Patel said he initially had his eye on a smaller building next door, the Hillen Tire & Auto repair shop. But after buying that property in 2005, he learned that Furncraft was available as well and purchased it. Another developer had it under contract for a condo conversion but didn't proceed with his plans.

"When the opportunity arose, we jumped at it," Patel said. "It just fell into our lap."

Patel initially wanted to save the Hillen Tire building, too, but concluded that because of its size and shape, "the numbers didn't work." He plans to raze it to make way for the Cambria Suites.

The Furncraft building, which dates from around 1910, is larger and more prominent than the Hillen Tire building and is less industrial in character. Since it falls within Baltimore's Oldtown national historic district, the conversion would be eligible for tax credits for historic preservation if the work meets federal guidelines.

According to Patel and architect Mark Blackburn, the restoration plan calls for landscaping the entranceway and installing new windows and heating and mechanical systems to serve the guest rooms, which will cost $90 to $100 a night. The anticipated cost of the conversion is $2 million to $3 million, plus the purchase price of approximately $1.3 million, Patel said.

Review panel member Walter Ramberg cautioned the architect to be careful about altering window proportions and introducing unsightly "through-the-wall" air conditioning units.

"The building's appearance will be significantly affected by the the way the windows are taken care of," he said.

Historic buildings that have met the wrecking ball recently include the Rochambeau apartments on Franklin Street, 1820s-era rowhouses on St. Paul Place and a loft building across from Davidge Hall on Lombard Street.

The Furncraft building wasn't on anybody's must-save list, but Patel said he's pleased with the way it accommodates the hotel use. He said the Sleep Inn chain, a division of Choice Hotels, typically builds its projects from scratch, and he had to convince its representatives to work with an existing structure. Although the building isn't fancy or ornate, its simple, stripped-down exterior is consistent with a budget-oriented brand, and the open floor plan made it easy to work with.

Patel is lucky that the building hadn't been snapped up by another developer. He said he benefitted because the furniture store's owner was ready to retire and the previous conversion plan fell through.

Patel said he also thinks people haven't invested in Oldtown properties in general because they lie east of the elevated Jones Falls Expressway, which is perceived as a wall that cuts the area off from downtown. But for pedestrians, he said, it's just a short walk to City Hall, the Inner Harbor or the Metro station to the Johns Hopkins medical campus, and it has "tremendous visibility" from the expressway itself.

All the area needs, he said, is a more defined pedestrian connection to the Jonestown heritage trail and a few other links to downtown and the waterfront.

Because it's east of Interstate 83, he said, Oldtown has been overlooked. "People have been reluctant to invest in that area. But it's centrally located. Once someone does something, it's going to snowball."

ed.gunts@baltsun.com

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