Artists seeking studio space in Baltimore will have a new option to consider this fall when the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower opens for its first tenants.
Renovation work is nearing completion on a $1.25 million conversion of the landmark tower at 15 S. Eutaw St. from municipal offices to studios for painters, sculptors, photographers, graphic designers, writers and other artists. The first two floors will have a cafe and gallery space.
Bill Gilmore, director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, said he expects construction to be completed by the end of August and that artists should be able to move in by October.
"We're looking for artists who are willing to open their doors so we can have the building open one Saturday a month, so people can go in and ride the elevator and ... buy works of art," he said.
The open houses would make Baltimore's 15-story arts tower a vertical version of the Torpedo Factory in Virginia, a munitions factory before it was converted 25 years ago that has become a magnet for artists and arts lovers. "We're going to build it into the lease," Gilmore said.
Modeled after a 13th-century stone watch tower in Florence, Italy, the building was designed by Joseph Evans Sperry and constructed by Capt. Isaac Emerson in 1911 as part of the factory that made Bromo Seltzer, a headache and indigestion remedy. Each floor is 30 feet by 30 feet.
After the Bromo Seltzer business moved out of state in the 1960s, the tower was donated to the city. For more than two decades, it was home to the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture.
After that agency merged with the Office of Promotion and moved to Redwood Street, Gilmore and a former MACAC executive director, Jody Albright, pursued a plan to fill the building with artists as an anchor for the revitalization efforts on the west side of downtown. "I consider this the gateway to the west side," Gilmore said.
The tower is now owned by Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower LLC, with arts patrons Sylvia and Eddie Brown as the "investor partners" and the Office of Promotion & the Arts as the managing partner. Schamu Machowski Greco is the architect, and Azola & Associates, the general contractor, began work last summer.
The upper floors will contain two or three studios per floor, depending on their layout, with the average studio measuring about 15 feet by 15 feet and featuring picturesque views of downtown. Alternate floors will have a bathroom and small communal space. Artists can't live in the building but can work there around the clock.
As the renovation work nears completion, the arts office will be working with a leasing agent to sign up tenants. More than 200 artists and others attended an open house in the building last October. The 40 people who expressed interest by filling out information sheets will be contacted first. Gilmore said rents are likely to start at about $400 per month, with upper floors commanding somewhat higher rents. The Browns have made a donation so an "emerging artist" can occupy one studio free of charge.
Azola is a family-run company that specializes in preservation and has been working to retain as much of the building's character as possible. On the first floor, the company is reinstalling original oak doors that were found in the clock tower. It is saving bronze windows, radiators and other items wherever it can, while adding a sprinkler system, central air conditioning, state-of-the-art fire alarm system, backup generator and new bathrooms.
"With the Azolas, you get the whole family," Gilmore said. "They really take it on as a love of preservation."
Much of the renovation budget has gone to installing a second stairwell for use in case of fire - a requirement of Baltimore's Fire Department, even though the John F. Steadman fire station is next door. A second phase of construction on the tower calls for cleaning its exterior, when funds become available.
The construction team is determining what to do with a large mural on the tower's east side by Baltimore artist Rod Cook. Sections of stucco have begun to fall off the building and onto the sidewalk below, creating holes in the painting that would be costly to repair.
More information about the studios and the application process is available from the Office of Promotion & the Arts at 410-752-8632.