Getting on Board

Architects and builders hope the challenging remake of a loft building steps from the train station spurs similar renovations projects in Baltimore

February 13, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun architecture critic

Last year, Dr. Gavin Hamilton lived on the 17th floor of a new building in Baltimore's trendy Harbor East community.

This year, the 32-year-old specialist in internal medicine found an apartment he likes even more -- a converted loft in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. He's so pleased with it, he's throwing an Oscar party to show it off to his friends.

"I like the layout and the high ceilings and the way they preserved the industrial feel of the building," he said. Plus, "it's on the route of the Hopkins shuttle and an easy walk to the train station and Tapas Teatro and the Charles Theatre. I'm very happy with it."

Hamilton is one of the first residents of the Railway Express Loft Building, a former parcel post office one block east of Pennsylvania Station in midtown. The $19 million project opened this winter as the city's newest experiment in creating so-called "live-work" environments for urban pioneers who want to be near the train station and the arts district taking shape around it.

Before the two-level building could open at 1501 St. Paul St., architects and builders had to overcome a variety of design obstacles to retrofit it for 21st-century uses. In the process, they hit upon a formula that could help save other cavernous industrial buildings that pose challenges for older cities such as Baltimore.

Part of their strategy was the introduction of a loft apartment that's unusually long and spacious yet takes full advantage of the building's high ceilings and large windows to bring natural light deep into the living space. Architect Ed Hord of Hord Coplan Macht calls the configuration a "cascading loft."

In a career spanning three decades, Hord says, he's designed nearly 14,000 residences but never anything quite like it. What makes this loft apartment so different from others is that it has three levels of living space, as opposed to one or two in most lofts, and the upper levels look out over the spaces below like tiered balconies.

"I wouldn't be surprised if it's out there," Hord said of the cascading concept. "But I haven't seen it anywhere else. It's a deep unit, but it's not dark at all."

More than half of the 30 apartments are leased, even though the building opened in the winter, the economy is slowing and there was no furnished model. Monthly rents range from $1,250 to $2,350.

Two more initial tenants are Prasad and Nirupama Reddy, an information technology director for a software company and a pharmacist, who moved from Columbia. They're expecting their first baby in a few months and wanted plenty of room, so they rented one of the cascading lofts.

"It's working out great," said Prasad, 30. "We like the open layout. In the daytime, you don't have to turn on any lights because there's so much natural light."

While the building's upper level is devoted to residences, the lower level is filling up with an eclectic mix of commercial enterprises. They include a graphics company, architectural firm, software company, artist, engineer, cabinet maker, three developers and a coffee shop.

Complex location

For both commercial and residential tenants, proximity to the train station was a big draw, said Lone Azola, who's heading the leasing effort. "Amtrak, the MARC trains, light rail, buses -- we are at the doorstep of the hub of transportation," she said.

It's a welcome combination of transit-oriented development, historic preservation and sustainable design, said Anna Custer, executive director of the Live Baltimore Home Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes city living.

"I think it's a gorgeous building and a great reuse of a historic property," she said. "A lot of thought went into making it an attractive place to live. There's so much light in the apartments. We hear the buzz about sustainable communities -- being able to walk to existing city services, leaving a smaller carbon footprint. Projects like that make a lot of sense."

"Not many cities could boast a project like Railway Express," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. "To be in this historic building on top of a rail line is the perfect confluence of modern living with an industrial past. ... The more we can transform some of our unique buildings into appealing residences, the better."

Although Railway Express is meeting with success now, getting there wasn't easy. The conversion was more complicated than most loft projects, in part because it's so close to the train tracks and the Jones Falls Expressway.

The 77,000-square-foot building was constructed in 1929 as a sorting station for packages arriving in Baltimore by train. Originally connected with the Pennsylvania Railroad, it was later acquired by the city and turned into a maintenance facility for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

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