Farewell Calvert Street, hello Port Covington: The Baltimore Sun says goodbye to its longtime building

Farewell Calvert Street: The Baltimore Sun says goodbye to its longtime building

Goodbye train tracks that delivered newsprint right into the building. Goodbye ghost of H.L. Mencken. Goodbye THE SUN sign that glowed for I-83 drivers. Goodbye red brick walls. Goodbye bands of green-tinted windows.

Goodbye Calvert Street.

For 68 years, the brick behemoth at 501 N. Calvert Street has been The Baltimore Sun’s home. Now, with the lease expiring, its journalists and sales, business and administrative staff are moving and will join the printing, production and transportation operation at Sun Park in Port Covington, 3 miles south and worlds away.

As with any move, this one brings both a pang for what is left behind and the uncertainty of what lies ahead in the new and largely unbuilt Port Covington, the peninsula that juts into the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

Much has changed, for both The Sun and the city, since the paper arrived on Calvert Street on Christmas Day 1950 (the only day back then when it didn’t publish). The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Glee Club performed, and visitors peered through huge first-floor windows to marvel at the new printing presses, which were started by two 10-year-old granddaughters of Sun executives.

One wore “a white blouse and a plaid skirt, predominantly green,” The Sun dutifully reported the next day, and the other “a white blouse and a green jumper.”

The Baltimore Sun is leaving its Calvert Street home of 68 years for Port Covington. A look back and forward.

Since then, the organization has expanded and contracted, opening regional and foreign bureaus during flush times and closing them in tighter ones. It went from typewriters, copy boys and pneumatic tubes to computers, website updates and live tweeting.

An institution once run exclusively by white men largely from the same several families, it became less inbred and more diverse. The Sun, The Evening Sun and The Sunday Sun — called collectively The Sunpapers back then by everyone, and now still by longtime residents — are now a single morning paper, plus a website that reaches a larger audience. And it went from local to corporate ownership, and through the multiple spasms of the newspaper industry.

Upheaval in the business has left many newspapers with downtown buildings too big for their needs. As advertising and other revenues have shrunk, so too have newspaper staffs — by 45 percent in the past decade, the Pew Research Center reports. In many cases, the huge spaces that once housed printing presses were already empty, with many papers having already sent the hulking machines to remote locations.

Nikki Usher, a professor at the George Washington University school of media and public affairs, says the continuing shift from paper to digital products has prompted many organizations to move to “post-industrial news spaces.”

“You’re looking for server space,” she said. “You need space under the floor for wiring. You need completely different things now.”

501 N. Calvert Street
Sunpapers building at 501 N. Calvert Street is seen from Guilford Avenue in 1949. Baltimore Sun file photo

Trif Alatzas, The Sun’s publisher and editor, said the Calvert Street building was built for a different time, when staff was more tied to desks and landlines, and schedules were organized around print deadlines rather than continuous digital updates.

“The way we gather news and sell advertising, we just do it a lot differently now,” he said. “We needed new space whether we stayed here, or wherever we went.

“We need more opportunities for people to be more mobile, and to be able to plug in and play when they sit down,” Alatzas said. “A lot of people do their jobs on their phones and their laptops now, and [the Calvert Street newsroom] was kind of designed for when you just sat at your computer and when we didn’t have the kind of mobility we have now.”

Alatzas said The Sun chose Sun Park after considering properties throughout the city.

The Calvert Street building it leaves will likely go the way of many of its neighbors — the new owner, Atapco Properties, has said it’s considering a mixed-use development that could include a hotel, offices, restaurant, grocery store and performance space. In other words, the kinds of amenities that would serve a downtown where former banks, office buildings and company headquarters have been converted into places to live rather than work.

501 N. Calvert Street
The Baltimore Sun building has been a fixture on Calvert Street since 1950.  Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun

Other papers have moved out of iconic but often too-big quarters. The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Sun’s corporate cousin, the Chicago Tribune, have all moved to leased space near their former homes. Others, such as the Los Angeles Times and The Miami Herald, have left their downtowns entirely.

Usher, who wrote a paper on the phenomenon for Columbia University, said media organizations are building newsrooms around a central hub — “Mission Control” at The Des Moines Register, for example, and “Starship Enterprise” at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The configuration allows editors, reporters and online staff to communicate as they update content continually.

And yet, even as the new spaces might be more suited to how journalists work today, and readers likely will see no change in what they read, there is at least a symbolic loss in leaving behind an old building, Usher said.

“I think for reporters, it’s the sense that you’re connected to a larger tradition, a common cause and an identity,” she said. “It’s tied to that legacy, and it’s tied to something larger than your immediate business, more than the number of Twitter followers that you have.”

501 N. Calvert Street
People work at the Sunpapers building in 1967. Baltimore Sun file photo

Usher believes this feeling can extend to the “mind space” of the larger community, where the physical presence of the newspaper downtown signaled the role it played in political, business and civic life.

“Place matters,” she said. “What does it mean when the watchdog is no longer physically watching over you from their perch?”

The Sun’s Calvert Street location is just north of the central business district, but close enough to be considered part of downtown. That was of value to both the paper and the area, said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership.

“I think people benefited from running into each other downtown,” he said. “I do think there’s great value to people being close together, just bumping into each other on the street.

“But I don’t think Port Covington is so far away,” he added.

Maybe The Sun can invest in a bunch of Birds, Fowler said, the rental scooters that have turned up in town recently, so reporters can more easily get back downtown to cover stories.

I think for reporters, it’s the sense that you’re connected to a larger tradition, a common cause and an identity

The move indeed has been dreaded by many reporters, particularly those whose beats took them, usually by foot, to City Hall, the courthouses and other locations that are now a drive away.

Alatzas said The Sun is changing addresses but not mission. He noted that reporters don’t walk to the city school district headquarters on North Avenue, but cover it as aggressively as any nearer agency.

The staff that moved to Calvert Street when it was the “new” location was similarly reluctant. They had worked in a much beloved building at Baltimore and Charles streets, dubbed Sun Square by mayoral proclamation, the city’s version of New York’s Times Square. The place where residents flocked at moments of big news or civic celebration. The end of World War II, for example, or for updates from the World Series.

“Sun Square wasn’t just a newspaper building. It was the heartbeat of a community,” said Gil Sandler, 95, the writer, radio personality and raconteur.

As a teenager, Sandler was a copy boy at Sun Square, a glorified errand-runner who would ferry advertising proofs between the paper and downtown ad agencies, dreaming of one day following in Mencken’s footsteps.

By the mid-1940s, the paper had outgrown Sun Square. Its aging presses needed to be replaced, and the trucks that delivered huge rolls of newsprint and distributed the finished newspapers were continually getting stuck in downtown congestion.

501 N. Calvert Street
People tour the new Sun Building in 1951. Ellis J. Malashuk, Baltimore Sun file photo

Mencken was among the staff members who resisted the move. He considered the new building an expensive, unnecessary ego trip on the part of his friend, publisher Paul Patterson.

“He is eager to build himself a monument,” Mencken said, “and doesn’t seem to remember that it may be a monument to the loss of solvency of the Sun.”

Mencken proposed building a “barn” for the new presses and letting the rest of the operation remain at Sun Square. Instead, the papers’ owners, the A.S. Abell Co., bought a 5-acre site on Calvert Street from the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The original design by Palmer, Fisher, Williams & Nes, called for a four-story building with a 10-story tower, which along with the new presses was projected to cost $4 million. But it opened with five stories, and later gained a sixth.

In 1978, when The Sun bought newer presses and built a three-story addition on Bath Street, the cost would no doubt have given Mencken more heartburn: $50 million.

Although the Sage of Baltimore, who died in 1956, opposed the move to Calvert Street, he remains a presence there: A wall in the lobby bears his image, and his stirring words: “As I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings.”

The Sun bought a parking garage a block to the north and built a skywalk to connect to the original building. All told, the property encompasses more than 435,000 square feet, spread over the 400, 500 and 600 blocks of North Calvert.

Retired Sun photographer Walter McCardell Jr., 93, remembers co-workers bringing a bit of Sun Square to their new Calvert Street office: They collected cockroaches in a cigar box from the old building and released them in the new one.

501 N. Calvert Street
Employees work at the Sunpapers building. Baltimore Sun file photo

Still, McCardell said, “we missed downtown.”

“But as a photographer, you’re on the road most of the time anyway,” he said.

Soon, he said, the staff had adopted the Calvert House restaurant to the south as their after-work hangout. Compared with bustling Sun Square, the street was so quiet by 2 a.m. that one photographer used to hit golf balls down Calvert, sometimes bouncing them against the walls of Mercy Medical Center.

McCardell came to appreciate the advantages to the new building. It was a short walk from his apartment on West Monument Street, where reporter and future London correspondent Russell Baker lived as well. The photographers had much more darkroom space in their new third-floor quarters, McCardell said, on the other side of “Brains Alley,” as they called the editorial writers’ offices.

The newsroom was on the fifth floor, but even up there, the rumble of the presses could be felt reverberating through the building.

The staffs of The Evening Sun and the morning Sun eyed one another warily from their separate newsrooms. The two staffs — and that of the once separate Sunday Sun — shared the library and photo departments, which meant a reporter sometimes would learn what a rival was working on.

501 N. Calvert Street
The Calvert Street entrance of the Sunpapers building is seen from 1954. William Klender, Baltimore Sun file photo

“You would go to get clips in the library and they would say, ‘Oh, [Evening Sun reporter] Mike Fletcher has those out,’ ” said Kathy Lally, a former reporter, foreign correspondent and editor for the morning and Sunday papers. “And you would think, ‘What is he working on? I have to beat him.’ ”

For Lally, now an editor at The Washington Post, Calvert Street is where a once rather staid news organization modernized.

She joined the paper in 1975, a time when there were few women in power. When the makeup editor — the liaison to the composing room — was training her to fill in for him, Lally said, he warned the all-male typesetting staff: “All right, you animals. See this woman? Don’t even think of touching her.”

Those men were fine, she said, helping her out with such wizardry as lopping the tail off a comma to make it a period and trim a story to fit.

It was in the newsroom, she said, where women had to agitate for greater roles. She watched as men received all the promotions, she said, while women “never even had the chance to talk about our careers and our ambitions.”

In October 1978, newsroom discontent led Sun managing editor Paul A. Banker to appoint a task force of reporters and editors "to examine and analyze all departments of The Sun and Sunday Sun," he wrote in a memo to the staff.

He appointed a task force that Lally credits with helping usher in a new era at the paper, including the hiring of more women and minorities. That culminated with the appointment of Mary J. Corey to the top newsroom job in 2010, a job she held until her death from cancer three years later.

During The Sun’s 68-year tenure on Calvert Street, the paper went from local ownership — descendants of A.S. Abell and other shareholders from prominent Baltimore families — to out-of-town corporate control.

501 N. Calvert Street
Last Linotype Machine sits in the Sunpapers composing room in 1977. Baltimore Sun file photo

Kevin Abell, a reporter and editor from 1976 to 1986, was the last of his family to work at the paper while various relatives served on the board.

That led to a bit of awkwardness when, as a member of the Newspaper Guild, he walked the picket line during one of several strikes.

“I was a Guild member first,” said Abell, 65, who lives in Lutherville. “I still have the sign; it’s framed on my wall.”

Abell has fond memories of his time on Calvert Street, separate from his family ties.

“I loved walking up the steps of The Sun building as one of the great newspapers of the country,” he said. “Here’s a great institution in the heart of the city, as important as Johns Hopkins or Mercy down the street. It had a key function in the life of Baltimore.”

Shortly after he left the paper — with a young family, he opted for the more regular hours of a stockbroker — the Abell Co. sold to Times Mirror Co. for $600 million. In 2000, The Tribune Co. bought Times Mirror for $8 billion.

In 2014, Tribune spun off its newspapers, but kept the real estate — including the Calvert Street building and Sun Park. Tribune sold Sun Park to Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank’s Sagamore Development in 2014 for $46.5 million, and the Calvert Street real estate to Atapco Properties last year for more than $15 million.

Here’s a great institution in the heart of the city, as important as Johns Hopkins or Mercy down the street

Kevin Abell, Sun reporter and editor from 1976 to 1986

The Sun maintains a long-term lease on Sun Park. When the move is complete, it will hold more than 500 employees.

The transition has been underway for months. Employees throughout the company have boxed up belongings and crews have dismantled cubicles and file cabinets.

Alatzas said officials are still working out whether some of the signature parts of the building, such as the lobby wall featuring quotes from Mencken, Corey and A.S. Abell, and exterior signs, will remain or travel to Sun Park.

The newsroom was among the last to move. Populated by the kind of people preternaturally disposed to hoarding, it has been the scene of much moaning over a directive limiting everyone to a single packing box for the move.

Trash cans, recycling bins and entire dumpsters have filled with the detritus of journalism: spiral notebooks, legal pads and all manner of reports and documents. What to take, what to dump: books, yellowed newspapers, Post-its with mystery phone numbers, press credentials on cool lanyards, disgustingly stained coffee mugs, scrawled notes of tips meant to be followed, someday.

It has always been thus. When staff moved from Sun Square to Calvert Street, an employees’ newsletter marking its 25th anniversary headlined one remembrance “Porters Cleaned Mess; Moved Many Small Boxes.”

501 N. Calvert Street
Renovations take place at the Sunpapers building on Calvert Street. Baltimore Sun file photo

What The Sun leaves on Calvert Street is a building that might not be considered a landmark in the way of, say, the Los Angeles Times’ Art Deco and Late Modern headquarters, or the Chicago Tribune’s Gothic cathedral-like tower.

And indeed, there are those like Charlie Duff, president of Jubilee Baltimore, a group devoted to improving neighborhoods in the city’s center, who look forward to a renovated building — one that doesn’t suck the oxygen from Calvert Street.

“It’s anaerobic,” Duff said. “It cuts Mount Vernon off from downtown.”

Duff said the current building lacks the street-level retail and restaurants that would encourage more foot traffic.

“It’s in a part of town that isn’t any part of town,” he said.

Others are kinder. Walter Schamu, who founded the Baltimore Architecture Foundation, considers it “sort of a landmark on Calvert Street.”

“It’s kind of an industrial aesthetic,” he said. “It’s its own, plain brown-wrapper Baltimore.”

Schamu, through various deaths and moves, came to possess the doors of the old Calvert commuter train station that once stood on the site.

That’s why The Sun chose the location: its access to rail lines eased the delivery of newsprint from Canada.

Even now, tracks lead into the first floor of the building, where stains remain on the floor, Shroud of Turin-like, of the huge rolls of paper that were once fed into the printing presses.

“We had to keep 30 days’ supply of paper here,” said Larry Machovec, facilities manager at The Sun. The paper had to acclimate after its long journey from Canada before it could be used.

“If it’s too cold, it would be brittle and when you ran it through the presses it would break,” he said.

501 N. Calvert Street
The Jones Falls Expressway is extended past the Sunpapers building in 1974. Baltimore Sun file photo

These days, it’s ghostly quiet on the first floor. The presses that once churned out edition after edition, spewing a mist of black ink into the air, left for Port Covington long ago. The former truck bays are empty, and the gasoline island for refueling them is gone.

Just two ancient-looking machines remain — one of The Sun’s old linotype machines, and a blue-painted one that was once displayed in a former lobby of the Annapolis Capital Gazette. It was sent to Calvert Street for storage when that paper, owned by The Baltimore Sun Media Group, moved to its offices on Bestgate Road. That’s where five staff members were killed in a shooting attack June 28.

Machovec left a job as an electrician at Sparrows Point to join The Sun on — he remembers the exact date — July 8, 1974. A friend at the paper encouraged him to take the job, saying he wouldn’t have to go outside in the winter.

Four months later, naturally, some machinery outside the building broke down and he had to help repair it in 20-degree weather.

Still, he enjoys the work and the memories he’s built up over the years — the A. Aubrey Bodine photographs that used to line the lobbies; the telephone operator named Betsy, known for her home-baked cookies; the occasional celebrity spotted either filming a movie in the building or at least using the trailers that even now park on an access road off Guilford Avenue to shoot in the area.

His office is filled with artifacts from his time at The Sun. Old metal plates used in the printing process, for example, such as one that advertised, “Now You Can Wear The Very Same Wigs That The Supremes Wear! $12.88.”

A protester who used to march up and down Calvert Street gave him one of his signs. “Sun Lies,” it declares on one side, “Sun Errors” on the other.

On Machovec’s wall is an old photograph taken when the building opened. An employee had turned on all the lights so that the photographer could take a nighttime photo, he said.

Now, he plans to bookend that scene.

“I’m going to be the guy,” Machovec said, “who turns the lights out.”

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

Jean Marbella

Jean Marbella

Jean Marbella is an investigative and enterprise reporter for The Sun. She joined The Sun in 1987 and has been a features writer, national correspondent, editor and columnist. She was born in Havre de Grace, grew up in Chicago and graduated from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.