In years of covering Baltimore's neighborhoods and landmarks, I've often been told I had to put on a hard hat while touring a structure undergoing renovation. This time I was told I had to wear a life jacket, too.

The occasion was a trip to Fell Point's venerable Recreation Pier, the 1914 Thames Street structure in the midst of a complicated and costly renovation. I predict that in 2017 — when its magnificent ballroom and grand staircase are restored and 128 hotel rooms are created — brides, their mothers and wedding planners will be lining up to book this Baltimore treasure.


I was trying to contain my enthusiasm about what promises to be a very special space, the grand chamber that overlooks the city and harbor, when Marc Weller, president of Sagamore Development, said, "We will have the most spectacular ballroom in the Northeast." I'm not arguing.

Somehow this waterfront ballroom escaped much notice as a dance or wedding venue.

Located across the harbor from Fort McHenry, the building served a number of municipal tasks. There was a flat roof where children could play in a grassless setting overlooking the harbor. It was the terminus of a little ferryboat service that linked Fells Point with Locust Point. It was a kind of headquarters for maritime services. A marine radio station operated there.

And it was used in the filming of "Homicide: Life on the Street." Robin Williams appeared at the Rec Pier in a 1994 episode of the television police drama.

As late as the 1980s, dancers twirled on the ballroom's hardwood floor. Years ago, the Vagabond Players staged a run of Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie" there.

The pier tempted, yet vexed, other developers. Then Under Armour's Kevin Plank resolved to buy it and restore it as a ballroom, restaurant and hotel. His development firm is heading the restoration.

Built as a showpiece of Beaux Arts design, it reminds me of similar grand spaces in the Belvedere and Lord Baltimore hotels, or the Alcazar, now the Baltimore School for the Arts. Sadly, some of its fellow ballrooms are no more. The Southern and Emerson hotels were demolished, and the dance floor at the Maryland Casualty auditorium also perished.

We never thought of the Recreation Pier in the same category, but soon it will have its day. Architect Theodore Wells Pietsch's design promises a remarkable return.

The cost? "It's a lot," Weller said. "Let's just say the project is very lucky to have Kevin Plank as an investor, who thinks long term."

On a shimming September afternoon, it was easy to catch the positive spirit of hard work going into the old pier's renewal. I watched McLean Contracting pile drivers constructing a new bulkhead just off Thames Street.

Whiting-Turner, the builders, faced a daunting yet fascinating task in the past few months. They performed complicated surgery on the weather-beaten pier and its support pilings. New pilings had to be sunk nearly 60 feet into the harbor bottom. At the same time, the pier base had to be strengthened with enormous tie rods.

The new hotel rooms are to be fitted atop a structure that extends several hundred feet out and over the harbor. A new swimming pool will appear at the pier's end, across from Under Armour's headquarters at Tide Point and the Domino Sugar refinery.

Because of the pier's historic nature, its spider web of early steel industrial webbing is being preserved and strengthened. Come to think of it, it resembles the underside of Baltimore's old Guilford Avenue elevated streetcar line.