Another Opening Day

When the new Hilton opens to guests this week, the views from the inside may win the most raves

Architecture review

August 17, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun architecture critic

The new Hilton Baltimore Convention Center Hotel has been described as the city's first true "convention hotel," in part because it's the first one connected by enclosed sky bridges to Baltimore's 29-year-old convention center. But that's not the only feature that sets it apart from other downtown hotels.

The $301 million, 19-story hotel also stands one block from Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the cherished ballpark built in 1992 whose success triggered the nationwide back-to-the-city stadium-building movement. Many of the hotel's guest rooms and meeting spaces directly face the open seating bowl, which rivals the Inner Harbor as a visual amenity.

The hotel's proximity to these busy destinations will make it a gateway to Baltimore for thousands and give it a marketing edge no other hotel enjoys. But it also presented a nearly impossible challenge for the architects, who had to fit a large building into a tight and scrutinized site while adhering to a myriad of urban constraints.

Since baseball season began, Orioles fans have been voicing opinions about what they see of the hotel from the stands. Starting Friday, when the hotel opens, visitors and guests will have a chance to see what it looks like inside.

What they'll find is a building that will delight or infuriate, depending on one's perspective. Ultimately, the hotel is likely to rekindle an old debate that Baltimore planners never seem to resolve: How much building can you pack into one location before you begin to destroy the very place you wanted to strengthen?

The city-owned hotel occupies two blocks that were previously surface parking lots for the ballpark. They are just west of the convention center and just north of Oriole Park and historic Camden Station, home to two museums. The land is bounded by Pratt, Howard, Camden and Paca streets.

As designed by RTKL Associates, with Raymond Peloquin as vice president-in-charge and Dan Freed as project designer, the hotel looks like two buildings separated by Eutaw Street, but it's actually one connected structure sitting atop underground parking.

Although the designers had two city blocks to work with, they chose to put the bulk of the hotel on the western block and use the eastern block for meeting rooms, a restaurant and park.

RTKL's design grew out of extensive talks about the hotel's impact on its surroundings. Although the hotel's front door is on Pratt Street and one of the sky bridges had to span the light rail line along Howard Street, one of the most sensitive aspects of the design is the view from Oriole Park, because most of its seats face the hotel.

Since the ballpark opened in 1992, patrons have enjoyed a clear view of Baltimore's skyline from most seats because the two city lots were undeveloped. When city leaders decided to build the hotel, it meant the ballpark would lose some of its skyline views.

The architects tried to be sensitive about the views from the park and studied a variety of configurations before arriving at their final design. According to Freed, team members considered building guest rooms on both blocks, but decided that would obscure even more of the skyline and possibly dwarf Camden Station. As a result, they put all the guest rooms on the western block. They also considered designing a taller and more slender tower for the guest rooms, but the height was restricted because of the flight patterns of emergency helicopters heading to the nearby R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center.

Ultimately, they decided on an L-shaped tower, with a 19-story wing along Pratt Street and a 14-story tower along Eutaw Street, so the structure's thin side would face the ballpark.

In selecting a metal surface for the upper levels, Freed said, the architects drew inspiration from Baltimore's industrial harbor. The base was clad in brick to echo Oriole Park, as well as Camden Station and the old B&O Warehouse.

This plan accommodates all of the rooms that hotel operators needed, but it came at a price. The decision to make the guest tower so long and tall created a barrier to those views from much of the ballpark. From many seats, it is no longer possible to see the Bromo Seltzer Tower, the Bank of America tower or other city landmarks. The hotel's metal skin underscores the impression that the hotel is an alien presence, since it's a different material from the brick on the B&O Warehouse and Camden Station.

Freed said the designers pushed the hotel tower as far toward Pratt Street as possible to give the ballpark more breathing space. As a result, the hotel is less obtrusive than it could have been.

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