The strategy to outsmart floods that can sweep through the Jones Falls Valley is simple, yet effective — install thick aquarium glass in the ground-floor windows.
While touring the Whitehall Mill, the historic complex undergoing a $22 million makeover to become apartments, offices, a food market and restaurant, I learned about precautions to keep this remarkable structure dry, if not high, from the waters of Baltimore's picturesque and rocky stream.
The current transformation is the latest for a building that has seen many careers.
Whitehall Mill began its life as a water-powered flour mill in the 19th century. After suffering a fire, it was extensively rebuilt in the mid-1860s as the Clipper Mill, a classic cotton mill with clattering looms and a tall, faceted brick chimney.
The mill made cotton sailcloth and acquired its name from the famous Baltimore clipper ships. The old chimney and boiler chambers, with an adjoining outside terrace, are now on course to become the complex's restaurant.
In 1925, the mill changed hands and became Purity Paper Vessels — workers made food service takeout containers. By 1941, Sekine brushes had arrived, fabricating items that included a brush and comb model known as the Lord Baltimore.
The stout brick mill then became a warehouse for the U.S. wholesale operation of the British-imprint Penguin Books. From flour, to sailcloth, to milk cartons, to hairbrushes, to Shakespeare and Shaw in 1963.
The building's next career change was its most exotic. The classics of English literature departed 3300 Clipper Mill Road, and the warehouse became a giant, if inconspicuous, storehouse for pornographic magazines and adult products.
"When I give a tour of this place," said David Tufaro, the building's developer and current owner, "I like to say, 'This is where they stored the lotions and toys.'"
Tufaro, who works with his daughter, Jennifer Tufaro Nolley, also completed the restoration of another 19th-century Jones Falls Valley property, Mill No. 1, several years ago.
Its apartments have rented well, and its Cosima restaurant along the stream opened recently.
"We found out the market was both millennials and empty-nesters," said Nolley, who added that the people who move to this part of Baltimore seem to appreciate the working industries and business operations nearby.
"I feel the surviving industrial uses actually make it interesting," she said.
Many of the studio and one-bedroom apartments at Whitehall Mill have stunning views of the Jones Falls. Some of the corner units contain expanses of finely crafted, double-pane replacement windows that adhere to historic preservation regulations.
The aquarium-grade glass and some flood shutters are being installed on low-lying parts of the old mill — which last took on some water in April 2014.
But the spirit of this building is not about flood engineering. Tufaro, Nolley and their design team retained many heart-pine floors and wood trusses. I visited one bathroom that seemed to have a 19th-century wooden pole, similar to a utility support, as part of its structural composition.
The valley is somewhat narrow here, allowing workers and new residents of the 700-foot-long mill some delightful views. The residential portion of the structure is on the upper floors, out of reach of the stream. The model apartments will be ready for visitors next month.
An expansive portion of the mill is being retained for commercial purposes, One can picture its elegant chamber — industrial wood arches filled with natural light supplied by broad and tall historic windows — as a home for architects, engineers or landscape designers.
An area lined with fluted cast-iron support columns is earmarked for the food market — another ambitious career move for Whitehall Mill.
"People love going to markets," said Michael Ewing, a consultant to the developers who has previously created markets in spaces as diverse as Grand Central Terminal and Baltimore's Belvedere Square. "People are much more serious about what they eat, and people take pride in what they eat.
"We want to attract those involved in food today," he said. "We want them to be creative at Whitehall here — and show us what's next."