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Old Roland Park Water Tower still structurally sound after earthquake

No new damage to community icon, Baltimore City inspectors say

By Larry Perl, lperl@patuxent.com

August 25, 2011

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Baltimore City inspectors said Tuesday's Virginia earthquake appears to have had no impact on the 106-year-old Roland Park Water Tower.

"I'm going to say that this building has not sustained any damage, any, from the earthquake," said Dennis Chojnowski, an engineer and project manager for the Baltimore Department of General Services.

Chojnowski and James Diepold, chief engineer for the firm WBCM, a city contractor, walked around the outside perimeter of the tower and partway inside Wednesday afternoon, looking for signs of fallen debris or cracks.

Chojnowski, wearing a hard hat with a flashlight, was leading the city's effort to inspect and assess damage to city-owned buildings and structures, including libraries and offices, as far away as a city-owned building near the State House in Annapolis, following the 5.8 magnitude quake that was centered in Mineral, Va, and felt as far away as Canada.

Only inspections of city buildings are being done, and only if someone specifically asks for one or complains about possible damage, Chojnowski said. Six different engineering firms are helping or on call, Chojnowski said. Buildings inspected so far include City Hall and 1st Mariner Arena. No others are scheduled in north Baltimore, he said.

As a project manager, he doesn't normally do inspections, but was asked to coordinate the inspection effort "because of the complexity of what happened yesterday," he said.

The damage to the 8-sided tower that Chojnowski and Diepold saw, such as a chunk of a corner and parts of a plywood soffit missing, predated the earthquake, they said.

"This building has been deteriorating for some time," Chojnowski said. But he said, "Considering the age of the structure, it's pretty good."

The tower, with a granite base, brick walls and limestone trim, was built in 1904 in the Italianate architectural style and was used as a water tower until the advent of the city's reservoir system in the 1930s. In the years since, it has been a community icon. Although crumbling partly from pigeon guano that has collected near the top over the years, the structure was well designed and built, which has inured it against several earthquakes in Baltimore, Chojnowski said.

The building is also likely sitting on rock, which is a good thing, "because it (rock) doesn't move" in an earthquake, Diepold said.

"A good foundation and a good design is what keeps a building from falling over, and that's a blanket statement," Chojnowski said. "This one, I think, was built very strong. Whoever designed this had a good design."

The Greater Roland Park Master Plan calls for a city park around the tower.

The Roland Park Civic League in recent years has discussed with city officials the possibility of buying the tower from the city for a nominal amount and raising $250,000 or more to renovate it for use as league offices and a museum of local history. But Chojnowski and Diepold said it would be cost-prohibitive and logistically difficult to break apart and remove the original steel water tank, which is taking up most of the interior, and that they doubted there would be enough room for separate entrances and exits.

They said the building's value is as a historical landmark.

"You could not turn this building into another use," Diepold opined.

"It's a beautiful building, at a distance," Chojnowski said.