Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of occasional articles inspired by readers’ curiosity. What do you wonder about the Baltimore area that you’d like us to investigate? Tell us at baltimoresun.com/ask.
The thin rectangular spire and the waving flag that tops it are impossible to miss in the Baltimore skyline.
Most in the city would recognize the copper-colored building — the William Donald Schaefer Tower — but few know what’s inside the tiny rooms that make up the spire that sits over 700 feet in the air. In the almost 34 years of the building’s existence, with the exception of select employees, almost no one has made the journey to the top. Certainly no civilians.
That is, until Baltimore Sun reader and subscriber John Nickles posed the question: What exactly is up there?
The latest installment in a series inspired by readers’ curiosity brought three Sun staffers, Nickles — and his tape measure — on a journey to the last room in the spire.
The office building
Beneath the tower, there’s more than 300,000 square feet of office space across 29 floors. It’s home to over 1,100 employees in 14 state agencies including the public defender’s office, people’s counsel, public service commission and an office for the governor.
Construction for the building formerly known as the Merritt Tower began in 1984 after Gerald Klein, chairman and chief executive of Merritt Banking Loan and Associates, set out to build a new $38 million headquarters for the company. Klein told The Baltimore Sun back then that the building was going to be the “best looking, best constructed, best priced” and have the “best location.”
Klein planned to live at the top of the building in a penthouse. But the tower was sold before construction was even completed. Today, the Maryland Transit Administration has the top floor instead.
The bronze building is compact, but “very functional,” state General Services Secretary Ellington Churchill Jr. said during a tour of the building last month.
Nickles, who’s lived in Federal Hill for a decade, said he’s always looked up at the tower and wondered what was up there.
“It’s this looming spire and you can see it from just about everywhere in the city,” he said. “I think a lot of Baltimoreans have the same curiosity about what’s up there.”
Before the journey to the top begins, Churchill wants to make sure: Are we sure we want to do this? It’s not easy and it requires stairs. A lot of them. And most of the spaces aren’t air conditioned.
“It’s why we all came together here today,” said Nickles, replying for us all.
The elevator can only take us as far as the 29th floor. Then we enter a maintenance area where the building’s chiller is kept, and we’re greeted by our first set of stairs.
With each and every cement step, it becomes even more clear few people have been this high. Dust, grime and cobwebs are built up along the pillars.
It’s reminiscent of the years the building sat unused after it was finished in 1986.
In the midst of construction, Merritt fell into conservatorship, and the company’s financial situation continued to unravel. It was one of many Maryland savings and loan companies that became defunct during the ’80s. People became so worried about the stability of savings and loans they raced to get their money out, leading to the collapse of the companies.
A Sun article from 1995 called it the “worst financial crisis in Maryland since the Great Depression."
Several officials were charged with fraud and racketeering. Klein was among them but eventually acquitted of fraudulently overstating the value of the company and the real estate projects it loaned money to.
Even under new ownership by the Chase Manhattan Corp. and with a new name, the building’s reputation was tarnished. In 1989, it was estimated that 69 percent of the tower was vacant, according to a Sun article.
In 1993, the state bought the tower for $12.2 million — less than half of what it was originally estimated to cost. Shortly after, it was renamed in honor of former Gov. William Donald Schaefer. And since then, Churchill said, the building has always been full of workers.
But few of them have been as far as the building’s roof, where we have just arrived after climbing a steep ladder.
From the rooftop, there’s a panoramic view of the city from 493 feet in the air.
There’s still room to climb higher, though — up the eight-story spire.
A General Services worker unlocked a door that led to a spiral staircase — 128 stairs, to be exact — that would lead us to the very top.
“Last chance to back out,” Churchill said.
Nickles shook his head.
The staircase is so narrow, only two people can climb a floor at a time. And with no air conditioning, or even airflow, the higher you go, the more sweat beads form.
The spire exists only because Klein, Merritt’s CEO, wanted his building to be the tallest in the city.
In several Sun articles, it was referred to as the CEO’s “ego trip.” Three other buildings were being built downtown at the time, and Klein wanted to make sure his would stand out.
The tower clocks in as the fourth tallest in the city — after the Transamerica Tower, Bank of America building and 414 Light Street — with the official measurements being taken at the roof. But if the building is measured all the way to the top of the flagpole, the state says it’s the tallest building in Maryland.
Baltimore architect David Gleason said the building matches the 1980s architecture style that challenged new buildings to become more modern with unique design elements like the spire. The tower also offered over 8,000 square feet of storefront rental space that could be seen from the street.
The building “was trying to figure out how to do more than just meet the needs,” Gleason said. “It looked a little more at an urban solution than minimalist solution.”
Had the Schaefer Tower been built today, Gleason said, it would look completely different because office needs have changed. People now want a larger office space.
Gleason said during the post-modernism era when the building was constructed, architects tried to figure out what to do with a roof aside from making it flat.
“[The spire] gives it prominence on the skyline,” he said. “It speaks to the architectural vocabulary of the 1980s with glass and the roof line."
Besides aesthetics, the spire doesn’t have much use. Aside from the spiral staircase, big yellow water tanks are the only things inside.
The temperature increases even more when you hit floor five, or the first of three triangular rooms. It gets more claustrophobic, too.
And the very top of the triangle? It’s small. Really small. Nickles used his tape measure to find exactly how tiny it is. Each side is 16 feet, 10 inches.
With five people, there was barely enough room to navigate without bumping into someone. The walls are mostly covered with wood, including the windows, so you can’t see out.
The only people who get a view from the top are the window washers who go up at least twice a year and the workers who re-paint the flagpole as needed. (The flag itself is raised and lowered using a pulley system that is operated from the rooftop below the spire.) To get outside the spire, workers strap themselves into equipment that holds them in place and then swing open a hatch.
Something else special about the top: Everyone who visits signs their name.
Churchill wasn’t sure when or how the tradition started, but names written big and small scatter the walls, mostly in thick black marker. The earliest name Nickles could find was from 1995. On one beam, the marker reads “CLIMBED FLAG POLE” followed by a list of workers’ names and dates.
Nickles was surprised with how small the spire was. He was even more surprised about how he could feel it sway in the wind as he climbed the stairs.
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“We experienced a lot of stuff that I just wasn’t expecting,” he said. “It’s just really cool.”