Residents of Highfield House mark its 50th year

Residents of Mid-Century Modern landmark mark its 50th year

Architect Donald Sickler can still recall the color of brick that helped quiet the anxiety surrounding a North Baltimore apartment house that Guilford residents feared would resemble a steely hulk.

Saturday, residents of that apartment house, the 50 year-old Highfield House, a National Register of Historic Places landmark at 4000 N. Charles St., are marking their home's five decades with a plaque unveiling. They've also reflected on the first days at Highfield House, the work of the legendary architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the German-born designer who put the cool in Midcentury Modern. Like other ideas new to Baltimore, Highfield House initially got a cool reception.

Mies designed a decidedly non-Colonial structure for conservative North Baltimore. Residents of neighboring Guilford reacted against his first design, which one called "some kind of institution, a hospital or perhaps an office building." The architect toned it down a bit with a light-tone brick. When a city Planning Commission member appeared satisfied with the aesthetic modification, he identified the architect as "Mies what's his name," according to a Baltimore Sun news account.

The Highfield House opened on schedule in the fall of 1964. It wasn't cheap. A studio went for $1,200 a month in today's money. It took a while to fill up, but it soon was warmly accepted as one of Baltimore's best-known apartment addresses. Decorators from Hochschild-Kohn department store did the model apartments.

Highfield House's roots can be traced to a downtown Baltimore project. Builder Metropolitan Structures, a Chicago-based firm, had just completed the 100 N. Charles St. office building, also known as One Charles Center and designed by Mies.

Sickler, the architect who supervised the construction of it for his boss, the Chicago-based Mies, and later oversaw Highfield House's completion, recalled the reception Baltimore gave to the Charles Center project. One day he came out of his office and was greeted by a man walking along Charles Street. "He said to me, 'Are you responsible for this?' as he pointed to the site of the old O'Neill's department store. Then he swung around with his cane and took a swing at me. I ducked."

It took a while to rent the One Charles offices, but Metropolitan Structures commissioned Mies for one more Baltimore project, an apartment house on a roomy residential block of North Charles Street where a large Victorian house stood in today's Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood. The old house was razed and excavation began once the neighbors were satisfied.

Highfield House opened with fanfare in 1964. The magazine Architectural Forum praised it as a "slender frame of concrete."

Highfield's original news release (a copy of which is at the Enoch Pratt Free Library) said "wall-to-wall windows lend expansion to already large rooms" and spoke of "teakwood-finished cabinets with stainless-steel highlights." The dishwashers had the "expensive sparkle rinse feature," but a real Highfield first was the medicine cabinet whose lighting was "flattering to the skin tone."

It was those Midcentury Modern credentials that brought Ron and Barbara Marshall to the building last year after living in Palm Springs, Calif.

"It was almost a foregone conclusion we'd move here," said Ron Marshall, who with his wife collects Midcentury pieces. They have outfitted their 10th-floor apartment with a collection of 1950s artwork, George Nelson furnishings, Swedish ceramics and a Clairtone stereo player that would be at home in a "Jetsons" episode. With a little coaxing, Marshall will play a vinyl 33-rpm of Frank Sinatra singing "The Summer Wind" and "Strangers in the Night."

The couple have meticulously restored those flattering lights and the teak cabinets.

Dr. Robert Garnet, president of the Highfield owners association, led me on a tour of the property.

"Mies chose this space because it was so large and he could fit it proportionately," he said. "No builder would provide so much cool green space today. The building is beautiful and elegant."

Sickler, who made Baltimore his home after being assigned here by Mies, summed up the process: "We tried to do everything perfectly."

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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