The giant gray cylinder has loomed over the North Baltimore landscape for decades, providing heating gas for city homes and a familiar landmark for drivers on the Jones Falls Expressway.
Soon it will disappear from the skyline, and with it will go an important link to the city's industrial past.
But it will not go quietly. It will literally go out with a bang.
The Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. plans to implode the Melvale Gas Holder — about 25 stories tall — near Cold Spring Lane and the JFX, the last of more than a dozen gas storage facilities that once served Central Maryland, and one of the last in the country.
Unlike the gas holder demolitions in South Baltimore during the 1990s, in which three structures were dismantled piece by piece, BGE plans to blow up the 258-foot-high structure early next year, flattening it in seconds and then recycling the metal.
Company officials acknowledge that removing the city's last gas holder represents a milestone of sorts for BGE, a direct descendant of the nation's first gas company, the Gas Light Co. of Baltimore, founded in 1816.
"It's obsolete," said Blake Gardner, director of gas operations and integrity management for BGE. "There are fewer and fewer of these out there. I can't imagine there are any still operating," at least in the United States.
BGE officials say Baltimore will continue as a center of gas distribution for more than 650,000 households and businesses, but the Melvale holder, which dates to the 1930s, is expensive to maintain and the company has more efficient ways to store gas. They also note that the gas holder has been empty and out of service since 1997. The demolition project could cost several million dollars, but the officials do not have an exact figure.
Christina Nyquist, a spokeswoman for the American Gas Association in Washington, said her organization does not keep records about gas holders around the country, but she could not point to any others still in operation.
For local historians, the removal will mark the end of an era.
"It's the last of its kind," said Wayne Schaumburg, who teaches history and leads walking tours of Baltimore architecture. "It's huge. It will certainly change the visual landscape as you come down the Jones Falls Expressway."
The Melvale gas holder is part of a 26-acre tract BGE owns off the 2100 block of W. Cold Spring Lane. Officials plan to use part of the property to build an electrical substation; the rest will remain undeveloped for now. Baltimore's Jones Falls hiker-biker trail, which will open later this year to connect downtown with North Baltimore, will go through the property.
Kathleen Kotarba, executive director of Baltimore's Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation, said gas holders were such a powerful symbol of the company that an illustration of those in South Baltimore used to be printed on its stock.
Schaumburg compared BGE's plan for the gas holder to the demolition of Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street after the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. He hopes BGE can save "a piece" of the last gas holder, the way the Maryland Stadium Authority salvaged stainless steel letters from Memorial Stadium and the Baltimore Museum of Industry has preserved the cupola from the now-razed Wm. Knabe & Co. piano factory, which stood on the present site of M&T Bank Stadium.
"It's one of those things: As technology changes, the new comes in and the old goes out," he said. "It's a shame to lose it, but I can understand why BGE wants to do it. I can't think of any adaptive reuse for it."
This will be the first implosion of a Baltimore structure since a Mercy Medical Center garage was taken down in 2007. BGE officials say it probably will require temporary closings of the nearby light rail line and the Jones Falls Expressway.
Other gas holders weren't imploded because they were near other facilities within BGE's Spring Gardens complex or elsewhere, said Steven Stultz, senior project manager in charge of the gas holder demolition for BGE. This one is a prime candidate for implosion, he said, because it is far from homes or businesses. The work can be done early on a weekend morning, when it won't interfere with commuter traffic, he said.
"If you're going to pick a spot to do a demolition, this is it," Stultz said. "There will be very little interruption to anybody."
The Melvale gas holder is a 24-sided polygon, made of steel by the Bartlett Hayward Co. in 1933 to serve households and businesses in North Baltimore. It could store 7 million cubic feet of gas manufactured at the Spring Gardens complex. Later, it stored natural gas brought by pipeline from other locations.
Baltimore's early gas holders were built in horizontal sections that fit into each other, like a collapsible drinking cup. The telescoping design allowed roof and wall sections to rise and fall as gas volume changed, and employees could gauge gas output by observing the roof level.
The exterior walls of the Melvale gas holder do not move, but an "internal roof" did go up and down with the gas volume.
As technology has improved, so has the ability to store and distribute gas. Starting in the 1950s, pipes carried natural gas to Maryland from the Southwest, reducing the need for local gas manufacturing. In the 1970s, BGE built liquefied natural gas tanks at Spring Gardens that can hold more gas in far less space — up to 1 billion standard cubic feet of gas.
The company left the old holders up for storage and to help in balancing the supply. It eventually began removing the holders in phases to spread the demolition cost over multiple years.
BGE recently selected Potts & Callahan to carry out the demolition and site cleanup, with Controlled Demolition Inc. of Phoenix as a subcontractor. According to Timothy Collison, executive vice president for Potts & Callahan, the implosion will result in 2,000 tons of scrap metal, which will be salvaged.
BGE officials say the site does not contain much hazardous material, because gas rises. The tank did contain oil for lubrication, and any remnants of oil will be cleaned up as part of the post-implosion site work, they said.
BGE and Potts & Callahan are beginning to alert public agencies and others about the demolition plans. They also contacted the Maryland Film Office, in case it knows of any movie projects that might want to incorporate footage of the implosion for plot tie-ins.
Although the gas holder has been a North Baltimore fixture since the 1930s, not everyone knows how it was used. BGE's Gardner said some in the community are confused because there is a vinegar works nearby and they can often smell vinegar in the air.
Even today, he said, "some people think it's a vinegar tank," he said. "That would be a lot of vinegar."