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Former Patterson Park High no 'cookie-cutter property'

The project manager at the former Patterson Park High School in Highlandtown stood atop a roof terrace and said, "This is not a cookie-cutter property." That's an understatement.

Shaffin Jetha and Chuck Nale, officials of Focus Development, gave me a tour of the Southeast Baltimore landmark it has taken me 50 years to visit. I wasn't procrastinating; I just never got an invitation to view this under-recognized Art Deco-style school that once accommodated 3,200 students. It is now being made into 138 apartments. The old gym will become a parking area accommodating 146 cars.

It was five decades ago that I saw a photo of the school in a publication of the old Peale Museum on Holliday Street. It was one of the final designs of the Baltimore architectural firm of Wyatt and Nolting, whose long project list includes the Roland Park Shopping Center (1895) and seems to end without fanfare with this 1930s school.

Jetha thought about the building he is converting and pronounced it "industrial modern." It's also a style of building we do not often see in Baltimore.

Unlike schools such as City College, or the campuses of old Eastern, Western and Polytechnic, the 1934 Patterson never had a commanding site. It was shoehorned into a block bounded by Lombard, Ellwood, Pratt and Robinson streets. It is surrounded by mostly two-story rowhouses, except at one corner, an edge of Patterson Park.

The school commissioners wanted to locate the school within the park, but public opinion ruled otherwise. It opened in 1934 with 3,200 pupils and was the largest junior high school building in Baltimore. High school classes were added; a replacement Patterson High, without the park name but with playing fields, arrived on Kane Street in 1960. It then became known as Hampstead Hill Junior High.

The building site on Ellwood Avenue may be constricted, but its architects found a nimble way around that. They designed a building that is light and airy. They used industrial-style windows to advantage. Even on a cloudy day, light penetrated floor after floor of old Patterson. These windows wrap the buildings like the alternating bands of speckled brown and orange, a 1930s color combination that also turned up in the Hutzler Bros. complex on Howard Street.

The Wyatt and Nolting 1933 design remains spare and elegant. When you walk the school's corridors, you realize just how large the place is. It would dwarf the neighborhood if handled differently.

"The city was good enough to give us this at a fair price," Jetha said, adding that the $5.5 million purchase price is to be reduced by his costs of lead paint and asbestos abatement.

I had long heard of a set of 1930s murals that were in the school library. These paintings survived nicely and will become a design point in three apartments. The murals, painted in soft pastel colors (I could not see an artist's signature), depict the use of the written word. I spotted a figure who appears to be Francis Scott Key and another that may be Johns Hopkins.

The Patterson's expansive auditorium is an Art Deco triumph. It reminds me of the old Ambassador theater on Liberty Heights Avenue (now in ruins) and could challenge the Senator on pure 1930s style. Plans call for the stage housing to be made into apartments, but the spacious auditorium and balcony will survive as a fitness area.

The Baltimore Sun's account of the school's September 1934 opening said that it was the cheapest built in the city at that time. The construction cost was $225 per student.

When Nale told me this was not a cookie-cutter building, he pointed to the basement. At some point, he said, a firearms target practice gallery was added near the shop and mechanical system area. Watch for completion of this development next year.

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