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Changes taking shape at Rotunda complex

Behind the Rotunda building construction of new apartments, a garage, shops and a movie theater is taking place.
Behind the Rotunda building construction of new apartments, a garage, shops and a movie theater is taking place. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

The profile of a new residential component in North Baltimore has pretty much taken shape over the past few months. Since 1971, we've called it the Rotunda. Before that, the 700 block of W. 40th St. was the old Maryland Casualty Co., a Baltimore-born business that spared little expense to create a handsome headquarters within a finely landscaped corporate campus. There were once tennis courts, ornamental fish ponds and garden walks where the new buildings have risen.

The history of this piece of land tells a story of the changing city. The casualty company was a booming business. It grew from two rooms on Redwood Street to its own skyscraper — the Tower Building at Baltimore and Guilford. It outgrew that too and made a bold move — to this North Baltimore address in 1921. It was then on the outer edge, but that soon changed.

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Maryland Casualty had money to spend. There was a separate employees auditorium with a stage and pipe organ where the opening recital was played by the musician of the John Wanamaker department store. Maryland's Gov. Albert C. Ritchie dedicated the complex. He called it a "step in the constructive development of the state." The clock tower had a bell that still strikes the hours.

A 1920s Baltimore Sun article mused about a business moving to what were then the city's outskirts. Why should a "flourishing corporation, closely associated with the financial life of a city, move into the country, far from the pulse of commercial life?" The article answered its own question. The buildings and their setting worked well and blended in seamlessly with the neighborhoods it shared.

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This 22-acre site sits on high ground in Hampden but also borders Wyman and Roland parks. Over the past fall and winter, the former parking lot adjacent to the old insurance building has been torn apart and replaced with a grid of new apartments, a garage, shops and a movie theater. It is all far from complete, and it will not be open for business until later this year.

I was not really prepared for its density and scale. It promises to add a lot of interest to this neighborhood, just as the adaptive reuse of the Rotunda did in 1971. Residents are curious about what retailers will locate here. (An organic food market has already committed to opening there.) If this development is anything like the ground-floor shops in a similar structure that rose in the 3200 block of St. Paul St., there should be plenty of take-out food offerings.

I've watched the old insurance campus change over the decades. The walks and gardens disappeared as its agents arrived in their cars. It's only a footnote that the English novelist Evelyn Waugh once lectured from the auditorium's stage. How many local proms were held at the dance floor there?

More than 40 years ago, the insurance company realized it did not need all the space it had in its roomy headquarters, which looked as much like a college administration building or a high school in a wealthy community. The firm demolished what was called the Maryland Casualty Auditorium (a kind of public theater that hosted community musical productions) and constructed a compact insurance building there. That structure, with several others along Keswick Road, now houses Johns Hopkins University administration offices.

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The gracious old main structure became offices (there are numerous physicians and several radio stations there today) and its ground floor became a compact shopping center and supermarket. To a retail-starved city, the Rotunda was a pleasant shopping destination, if a little on the conventional side. The 1971 Rotunda was fairly plain, with the largest restaurant a Horn and Horn cafeteria. And in the style of the era, the interior mall's shops all faced inward.

The new shop spaces are now arranged like a traditional village and face the sidewalk and street of what promises to be its own residential campus. And for all the change here, the old Maryland Casualty-Rotunda campus retains its demeanor as a separate component blending in with the rest of the city.

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