In one of the city's first historic preservation battles, Baltimore residents paid $17,000 in 1924 to save the soaring Phoenix Shot Tower from a wrecking ball and a future as a Union Oil Company gas station.
Today, preservationists are again rallying around the Shot Tower. While it is no longer in danger — the city has abandoned a 2012 proposal to consider selling more than a dozen historic properties, including the tower — they say more needs to be done to showcase the attraction and to fully restore what was once the nation's tallest building.
The nonprofit Carroll Museums, which manages the Shot Tower and the nearby historic Carroll Mansion, plans to open the tower for drop-in visitors next month. And starting Sunday, the nonprofit Baltimore Heritage is adding a tour of the historic Jonestown neighborhood that includes the Shot Tower.
Carroll Museums has also begun a campaign to raise $1.1 million, with about half to be dedicated to repairs and restoration, and the rest to exhibits, administration and other costs. The tower's infrastructure needs updating; it's now only safe for visitors to climb one flight of steps because of the lack of adequate guard railings.
Eventually, said Paula Hankins, executive director of Carroll Museums, visitors will be able to climb to the top of the 215-foot brick tower, where workers once manufactured 2.5 million pounds of drop shot, used in small-game hunting, each year.
"It is the most amazing view, and you may not know you're afraid of heights until you're halfway up," she said.
Hankins and city officials want to draw more visitors to the site at the corner of East Fayette and North Front streets, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The residents who bought it nearly a century ago donated it to the city.
"This is the only shot tower to survive in Baltimore," said Carroll Museums tour guide Matt Hood.
There once were four. At the Phoenix tower, from its opening in 1828 until 1892, so-called drop shot was manufactured by dropping molten lead from the top of the tower into a vat of water at the bottom.
Originally called Merchant's Shot Company, it made drop shot for pistols and rifles as well as "moulded shot" for larger weapons, such as cannons. It was the tallest building in the United States until the Washington Monument in the District of Columbia was completed.
City officials see the Shot Tower as another way to draw tourists to Baltimore's downtown, said Jackson Gilman-Forlini, historic properties coordinator for the city's Department of General Services.
"It's a unique experience to go to the top," he said. "It's a breathtaking view. And we get a lot of tourists who want to go to the top."
Many residents and tourists don't realize the tower is now open to organized tours on the weekend, Hankins said. Tours that start at the Carroll Mansion include the Shot Tower as a stop on Saturday and Sunday evenings.
Starting next month, the tower will be open to any visitor from 10 a.m. to noon on Sundays.
In 2012, consultants hired by the city named the Shot Tower one of 15 historic sites, including the War Memorial building, that should be considered for sale or lease. At the time, proponents said the idea would raise money to restore underused historic sites, but preservationists worried that developers wouldn't maintain the historic structures.
In a recent interview, Gilman-Forlini said the city isn't planning to take action on the consultants' recommendations to sell.
"Initially, there was a lot of nervousness surrounding the consultants' study," he said. "All those were recommendations. And the city is not considering selling these properties. We really treasure them."
The Shot Tower has a number of unmet needs. It contains 1.1 million bricks, which must be repointed. The electrical system needs upgrades, and other improvements are needed to ensure that visitors can safely climb the steps.
So far, advocates for the tower have raised $57,000, Hankins said.
The city administration is seeking $100,000 in bond-issue funding to make safety improvements to the tower, Gilman-Forlini said. If approved by the City Council, the bond question will be placed on the November ballot as part of a larger financing package for cultural institutions.
The Carroll Museums signed a five-year lease with the city in November, with the option to renew it for another five-year term, Hankins said. Having the long-term lease will help with fundraising, giving more certainty to donors, she added.
Not only could the tower draw tourists, but officials with Caroll Museums and Baltimore Heritage want regular downtown visitors to check it out. For instance, they hope patrons of the Baltimore Farmers' Market under the Jones Falls Expressway will add historic sightseeing to their Sunday mornings.
"Within a short walk of the market are some of the greatest historic sites in Baltimore," said Johns Hopkins, director of Baltimore Heritage.
Volunteer Todd Harland-White, who has led tours for Baltimore Heritage, said he's looking forward to teaching groups about the tower's history. A naval architect, Harland-White moved to Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood about five years ago from the Annapolis suburbs and is fascinated with the area's history and architecture.
"I still work in Annapolis, but I love living here in the city," he said.
If you go
On the third Sunday of each month through October, Baltimore Heritage will hold a walking tour of historic Jonestown, featuring the Phoenix Shot Tower and other sites in the area. The tour begins at the Baltimore Farmers' Market and costs $5 per person.
The tower is also open at 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays for tours that start at the Carroll Mansion, with a cost of $5 for adults and $4 for children.
Starting May 4, the tower will be open for drop-in tours between 10 a.m. and noon each Sunday through November. A $1 donation is suggested.