Several weeks ago, a couple of hundred guests, government and construction officials, alumni and students, gathered under threatening skies to celebrate completion of a two-year, $6.3 million renovation of historic Mount Royal Station, long a centerpiece of the Maryland Institute College of Art and a successful national symbol of adaptive reuse.
The building, in Romanesque style with elements of Renaissance Revival, features a red tile roof and a 150-foot-tall clock tower designed by architects E. Francis Baldwin and Josias Pennington. It opened to the public without fanfare on Sept. 1, 1896.
Passengers and visitors could warm themselves during the winter months in front of the station's two huge fireplaces or pass the time in one of the rocking chairs placed on its concourse. "The B&O terminal is adapted for demonstrations, surrounded with slopes and lawns on which crowds can gather. Railroad officials take pride in the fact that almost every person of prominence has at one time or another boarded or detrained there," said an article in The Sun when the station celebrated its 40th birthday in 1936.
The rising tide of postwar automobile use and the development of the interstate highway system conspired to diminish long-distance rail passenger travel.
In 1958, all through-passenger service between Baltimore and Washington, Philadelphia and New York was discontinued, and the fabled Royal Blue Route faded into railroad history.
A quiet soon fell over the old station that never quite drew the crowds of neighboring Pennsylvania Station, the local gateway to a vast fleet of passenger trains.
Mount Royal Station closed its doors June 30, 1961, when the 5:50 p.m. commuter train departed for Washington.
Three years later, B&O officials agreed to sell Mount Royal and four acres of surrounding land to MICA for $250,000, thus guaranteeing that the old station would not be demolished, while the college gained space for studios, galleries and a library.
Where once passengers bought tickets, waited for trains and crossed tiled floors to board a waiting Capitol Limited or Royal Blue, student artists now worked.
The recently completed restoration -- the third since 1964 -- shifted the main entrance to the site of the old baggage room on the building's north end, near the Mount Royal Avenue pedestrian stairway.
Its granite facade was cleaned and the adjoining gable-roof train shed restored. The original eight-day pendulum clock manufactured by E. Howard Co. of Boston was also restored and is now waiting for its hands to be attached.
Other work included the installation of new ventilation systems, structural repair to attic trusses, new studios and fresh paint everywhere, including the train shed, focus of a 1985 restoration.
A new permanent addition is a three-panel timeline on a decorative cast-iron fence that separates the platform from railroad tracks at the north end of the station.
It tells the intertwined story of the two institutions -- the B&O and MICA -- that were both founded in Baltimore in the 1820s.
The principal designers were Fred Worthington (MICA Class of 1957) of Barton Matheson Willse & Worthington, a Baltimore marketing and communications firm, and Jason Edwards.
The panels were made by Pannier, a Gibsonia, Pa., manfacturer.
"The reaction to the panels began as they were being installed," said Doug Frost, special counsel for development and vice president for development emeritus. "Workmen wearing hard hats were leaning over reading the copy on the 800-pound panels as they were being installed."
At the recent dedication ceremony last week, Frost acknowledged that he was momentarily worried when Robert M. Vogel, former longtime curator of civil engineering at the Smithsonian Institution, asked him after looking at the timeline, "Errors?"
Frost replied, "I hope not."
"There are zero," he told Frost.
"The timeline is splendid and a thoroughly appropriate addition to one of Baltimore's premier historic structures," Vogel wrote in an e-mail. "Its occupation by MICA, whose adaptive reuse of the building with minimal alteration of its original fabric, is a brilliant example of how historic preservation should work.
"Makes me proud to be a Baltimore Boy, whose young feet first touched the city's ground in the Mount Royal train shed when the family migrated from Philadelphia to Baltimore just before World War II," Vogel wrote.
When Margaret Mead, the noted anthropologist, gave a lecture at the station in 1965, the B&O halted all freight rail traffic through the train shed during her 90-minute talk.
During the recent dedication ceremony, a southbound CSX freight train halted in the shed waiting for a green signal.
"So we had a freight train for a guest," said Frost, who added that the engineer gave a quick blast on his whistle before rolling his train through the Howard Street tunnel.
The final element will be bathing the structure in exterior lighting.
"That should come in a month or so," Frost said.
Find previous columns at baltimoresun.com/backstory