Critical Eye

Divine details refine former store

Eco-friendly design revives Stewart's building for nonprofit tenant

November 18, 2007|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun architecture critic

The leaders of Catholic Relief Services say the organization only does relief work outside the United States, but that's not entirely true.

Anyone who visits its new world headquarters at Howard and Lexington streets can see how much the international relief and development agency, which is active in 100 countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, also has aided the west side of downtown Baltimore.

By moving 350 employees to the center of the city's traditional retail district, Catholic Relief put them in a position to patronize the shops, restaurants and other businesses in every direction.

It also breathed life into one of Baltimore's long-dormant architectural treasures, the former Stewart's department store, and set a high standard for recycling a historic building in an environmentally sensitive way. The result, which cost $42.7 million, is one of the most significant restorations in central Maryland this year.

"We are proud to be part of the revitalization of this part of the city," Catholic Relief president Ken Hackett said during a dedication ceremony in September.

At the same time, he said, the move helped the 64-year-old organization, which has 5,000 employees known for responding to man-made and natural calamities around the globe, improve the way it carries out its mission.

"We bring a lot of people with diverse talents together every day to support our operations in 100 countries around the world," he said. "We had to have an environment where teams of people could react instantly in different ways. An earthquake on Sumatra, for us, is not just a news item. We have to provide immediate support to people. We had to create a place where we could make this happen ... on a moment's notice."

Built in the late 1800s as an emporium for Posner Bros., then sold and renamed in 1904, the Stewart's building was one of several department stores that stood near Howard and Lexington when that intersection was the hub of a bustling shopping district.

But the department stores couldn't compete with suburban shopping malls and closed one after the other by the mid-1980s. After Stewart's closed in 1979, the building became part of a portfolio controlled by the nonprofit Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, which decided to convert the upper floors for office use and leave retail space at street level. Catholic Relief, which had outgrown its previous headquarters at 209 W. Fayette St., agreed to lease the upper levels, and moved in this summer. Design Collective of Baltimore was the architect for both the "base building" conversion and Catholic Relief's space.

The architects suggested two big changes that helped make the transformation a success, one on the building's exterior and one on the interior. The exterior change was the creation of a new main entrance that provides access to every level of the nine-story, 200,000-square-foot building, without marring its historical facade. The major interior change was the introduction of a four-story skylit atrium in the middle of the building.

The architects put the new entrance in an addition on the east side of the department store, facing Lexington Street. The narrow addition is the same height as the Stewart's building and has a glass and metal skin whose design subtly echoes lines and details of its older neighbor, without upstaging it. A metal sun screen at the top is roughly the same shape as the store's cornice line, for example, and window mullions in the glass curtain wall echo the spacing of Corinthian pilasters on the store's exterior.

The Miesian architectural treatment helps the new entrance stand out, while respecting the main building. The addition also makes it possible for the original department store doorways to provide access to street-level retailers, when they move in. The Stewart's building's painted brick exterior, meanwhile, has been restored to its original Beaux Arts exuberance. The architects showed particular sensitivity in removing menacing roll-down grates that were installed to deter break ins, and replacing them with less conspicuous, perforated grilles inside the storefront windows -- an idea that nearby property owners have begun to copy.

Just as important for the owner and occupants is that the building received new mechanical systems and other improvements that make it highly efficient to operate. This was the first conversion of a historical building in Baltimore to be certified in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program of the U.S. Green Building Council, while also meeting federal preservation standards. That recognition is largely a credit to architect Tom Liebel, who is no longer with Design Collective but who led its team in making the Stewart's building a model of eco-friendly design, along with Michael Stover and Scott Vieth of Design Collective.

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