New duty for an arresting old building

Devotion to historic detail and $7 million turn Northern police station into offices

December 29, 2007|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun reporter

Few people would notice if the new stone framing the front entrance of the grand old Northern District police station did not exactly match the stone used in the original construction in 1899.

But Stanley Keyser wouldn't be able to sleep at night. "I'm nuts like that," he says.

In restoring the former police station in Hampden - a turreted, red-brick Victorian beauty - Keyser has spent more than five years suffering over the details: matching the design of the new steel ceiling to the original, buying stone from Germany and getting it milled in New Hampshire, traveling to a farm in Pennsylvania to get handmade window pulls.

Even in replacing the mortar between the bricks of the building, he used a historically accurate mixture. All told, the restoration has cost $7 million, an immense job that has taken twice as long as he expected partly because, well, the police didn't take very good care of the place for the hundred-odd years they were there.

"Their function was not to make a pretty building. Their function was to police the area," said Keyser, who relied on photos from the Maryland Historical Society for an accurate restoration. "You had one layer of lead paint on top of another."

Half of the slate roof had to be replaced, as well as all the gutters and rainspouts. Most of the windows are new - costing $2,000 each - and the entrance was restored to its original appearance. On the third floor, which was a police gym, a full-size basketball court was covered in pigeon droppings. Keyser had it cleaned up and the hardwood restored to its original luster.

Two tenants - the Community Law Center and U.S. Lacrosse - have already moved into the building, which will provide 30,000 square feet of office space, including the attached carriage house and stable. Keyser said he's negotiating with other tenants and all the office space should be leased by the spring.

But after years of delays, people in the neighboring Hampden and Wyman Park communities remain skeptical that the project will ever be completed.

"We've heard spring at least four times. No one in my neighborhood is holding their breath that it's going to be spring 2008," said Kathleen Talty, president of the Wyman Park Community Association. "What I've seen that's been done has been absolutely wonderful, but it should be. It's taken him long enough."

Keyser admits the delays have been huge. One problem was that several large cans of oil were found buried in the backyard, which halted work on the project. He also says 18 months was lost when it appeared that the Baltimore Lab School would take the space. The school, which educates students with learning disabilities, instead went to Lower Charles Village.

But many of the delays can be traced to Keyser's devotion to historical detail, for which he makes no apologies. He had a 3-by-11-foot stained-glass window made to match the original three stained-glass windows on the first floor. Replica Baltimore gas lamps were bolted to the exterior. Solid brass light fixtures were installed in the hallways. Keyser ordered iron railings and a fence from G. Krug & Son, which has operated a foundry in Baltimore since 1810.

Eighty percent of the building's huge windows, big enough to walk through, were replaced. But much of the wood casing around them was saved. Keyser says he argued with the engineers for five months to force them to find a way to save the casing and not bring the ceiling down below it.

"I don't deal with anything artificial," Keyser said. "There's no plastic on this job."

Masons worked on the building for four years, plasterers for three. Keyser moved his development office to the site, so he would be available to make dozens of tiny decisions each day, such as where light fixtures should be placed or what wood trim could be saved (not easy when some walls have seven pieces of trim on them). His tenants say the work paid off.

"I love architectural detail, and it's just a shame that buildings are not built like this anymore," said Kristine Dunkerton, executive director of the Community Law Center. "Stan's done a fantastic job with the brass fixtures and the doors and the windows. ... I can't say enough about the windows. I don't even turn my lights on until it's dark outside."

As a whimsical touch, Keyser had six police-style globe lights made and suspended them on a chain down the center of the main stairwell. They are alternating red and blue, a reminder of the building's original use.

When Keyser bought the building from the city in 2002 for $225,000, he first intended it to be a community center and marketplace, with restaurants and shops.

But he decided those uses would be too hard on the building and would lead to an excess of heavy trucks on the adjoining residential streets. The building is now entirely offices, though the name Hampden Village Centre remains.

Keyser has developed 42 historic properties over more than three decades, most of them in Mount Vernon, and says he is drawn to challenging projects.

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