Architecture Review

Curing all of Bromo tower's physical ailments

June 01, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun architecture critic

Creating artists' studios inside Baltimore's historic Bromo Seltzer Tower, part of the factory where Capt. Isaac Emerson made his famous headache and heartburn remedy, brought its own set of headaches for the public officials, architects and contractors who worked on the $1.5 million project.

Their solution, which will be unveiled at a grand opening Thursday, is one of the most inspired and resourceful preservation projects Baltimore has seen in some time, a feat of ingenuity that retains the tower's 1911 appearance while promising to keep it bustling with activity.

The characteristics that made the Bromo Seltzer Tower difficult to recycle are the same ones that made it stand out in the first place -- its slender profile and tiny individual floors, which measure 30 feet by 30 feet.

The building was designed by Joseph Evans Sperry to house offices for administrators who ran the adjoining factory, which was razed after the business moved out of Maryland in 1967. One of its chief functions was to promote the Emerson Drug Co. and its products. A 51-foot revolving replica of the cobalt blue Bromo Seltzer bottle, which was illuminated by 596 lights and could be seen 20 miles away, originally topped it. Instead of numbers on the four large clock faces, letters spell out BROMO SELTZER.

The tiny floors gave the building a distinctive silhouette on the skyline, but they posed problems for the renovators. Before the building could reopen as artists' studios, it had to meet current building codes, which require two stairways for use in case of fire. As completed in 1911, the building only had one stairway and two narrow elevators. Preservationists were concerned that adding any sort of stairs or fire escape to the exterior would mar its appearance and prevent the project from qualifying for historic preservation tax credits, which were needed to finance the work.

Architects Walter Schamu and Chuck Patterson of Schamu Machowski Greco came up with the answer. They proposed creating a second stairway inside the tower's shell, rather than adding to the exterior. The second set of stairs was built in the tower's northwest corner, in place of an elevator shaft and part of each floor. That made the floors even tinier, reducing from 900 square feet to 422 square feet the amount of space that could be leased on each level. But it satisfied the fire department and the preservation experts, enabling the project to move ahead.

With the fire safety problem solved, the tower's 15 office levels were converted to 33 studios in all -- two or three per floor, most containing roughly 145 to 220 square feet apiece. Designers saved space by putting bathrooms and break rooms on alternating floors, so they can be shared. The first two levels were left for a coffee shop, gallery, meeting space and office for superintendent Kristin Grey. The general contractor, Azola and Associates, saved as many original details as possible, from oak doors that were found up in the tower to bronze floor indicators and moving hands for the elevator, while adding a sprinkler system, backup generator and other mechanical upgrades. As a result, occupants and visitors can still get a good sense of what the building was like in Emerson's day.

The studios are small but attractive, with high ceilings. Large windows let in plenty of natural light and feature sweeping city views. What the studios lack in square footage, they make up for in privacy, since there are so few per floor. At the same time, tenants are only a stairway or elevator ride away from others in the building when they want company.

And there's more to come: Twenty studios are still available for rent. The city would still like to find money to clean the brick exterior. There's talk of putting the Bromo Seltzer bottle back on top, perhaps in laser beams, if not in glass and metal.

But even without the bottle, this is one instance where city leaders have met their goals -- and then some. After six years of dormancy, Baltimore's quirky Bromo Seltzer Tower is back to life. And as intriguing as the activity may be in any given studio, the most unusual work of art is the building itself.

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