In the final years of his life, before he was diagnosed with cancer, metal artisan and designer John Gutierrez would light a bonfire outside his Woodberry studio and use the heat and flames to lure friends and colleagues into conversations that often lasted into the night.
He died this year, and those who spent time around that fire are now raising funds to keep the tradition going. They plan to erect a 25-foot chimney atop the fire pit that Gutierrez had built, which will prevent potentially dangerous embers from flying to adjoining buildings within the Clipper Mill complex where Gutierrez had his metal fabrication works.
"When I come to work, I feel his presence," said his life partner of many years, Roya Golpira, who is now running his business. "Everything here seems to have his mark on it. As one of the first tenants here at the Clipper Mill, John made it his own. He was called the 'mayor' of Clipper Mill, which is fitting."
Friends said that Gutierrez seemed most at home in the former Poole & Hunt foundry buildings in Woodberry, where he had worked as a young artisan and, after its redesign following a fire in 1995 that wrecked the 19th-century foundry, he had an expansive studio. He built exterior lightposts at a pool, railings for new condominiums and the fire pit — and outfitted numerous Baltimore restaurants and homes with his metalwork.
Golpira said that after the 1995 fire, scores of industrial artifacts were unearthed within the sprawling complex of industrial buildings thats abut the northern edge of Druid Hill Park.
"One of the most impressive artifacts discovered was an enormous steel mill stone. John knew something special needed to be done with such a significant piece of history," Golpira said.
Fred Struever, of developer Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, found the massive fireplace base buried under the floor of a machine shop. He speculates it had been the foundation for a piece of foundry equipment.
"It took two backhoes to get it out of there," he said. "John and I found a new resting place for it, and he built a screen and basket for the fire. I wound up calling him the fireologist. He only wanted dry, hard wood to be used."
Struever and Gutierrez placed the stone at a small plaza near the Woodberry Kitchen restaurant. With some work, Struever said, the circular wheel-like industrial artifact made an ideal fire pit.
Struever said that a fire appealed to people returning home from work, who brought their wine glasses, beers and pots of stew to what Struever called an "urban oasis."
"Over the years, John and his company of friends hosted countless gatherings around the fire, including four goulash and paella parties," said Golpira. "John never needed a reason to have a good time. He celebrated life. 'It's all bueno,' John would say."
According to Golpira, the city Fire Department said the homemade fire pit did not meet code issues. In the final months of Gutierrez's life — he died when he was 45 — he was determined to continue the tradition with a new design that met code. Maury Primrose, the design director of Gutierrez Studios, contributed a concept design for the chimney.
Baltimore Fire Capt. Roman Clarke said open burning is not allowed in the city. He said that permission for an outdoor fireplace could be granted if the plan came before his agency for review and was approved by fire officials.
Charlie Cronheim, president of the Millrace Condominiums, and his wife, Ruth, are promoting an effort to raise an estimated $35,000 for the chimney and its foundation. "John was so spontaneous. He loved gathering people around his fire," he said.
Cronheim said that a fire pit, contained within a wire mesh screen and vented, would be a "worthwhile dream project" for the Clipper Mill complex, which has been expanded over the past six years with homes and condominiums, the restaurant, other artisans' studios and businesses.
A walk through Druid Hill Park is being organized for 10 a.m. Oct. 23 to help raise funds for the construction of the John K. Gutierrez Memorial Fireplace. The walk will begin at 2010 Clipper Park Road. Information is available at gutierrezwalk.wordpress.com.