Bromo Seltzer Tower celebrates 100 years

Baltimore's Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower is marking its first century this month as a commercially impractical but beloved curiosity named for a top-selling hangover cure.

On Thursday night, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and others celebrated the centennial at the 1911 tower, the tallest downtown structure until 1923. Guests rode a 1911 Otis elevator to the historic chamber high above the corner of Lombard and Eutaw streets to observe the clockworks and elevator motors.

"Like Baltimore, it's quirky," said artist Greg Otto, who has painted the tower numerous times and reproduced it on postcards. "The clock face is gorgeous, an extravagancy we don't see anymore. The tower itself is not particularly beautiful — an unadorned shaft with a wonderful crown. And yet, everybody knows that damn building."

Capt. Isaac Emerson, who held the patent for Bromo Seltzer and realized the publicity value of tall buildings, was the genius behind the structure. His 289-foot tower was an advertisement for his fizzy concoction, a patent medicine whose effervescent bubbling was produced when its crystals mixed with water. It was used for upset stomachs and hangovers, or what magazine ads discreetly called "dead-fish eyes." It is no longer produced.

Today, artists rent 33 studio spaces in the tower, which is run by the city's Office of Promotion & the Arts, but there are vacancies.

"If you're from Baltimore, this is a building you love," Rawlings-Blake said. "You see that tower and know that Baltimore is alive and kicking with the arts."

Philanthropist Eddie Brown and his wife, Sylvia, who attended the celebration, purchased the historic tax credits that enabled the tower to be renovated in 2008, city officials said. (Fire officials required that a second staircase be installed.)

"We wanted to save an historic Baltimore building, and we were interested in seeing it restored for a specific purpose, artists' studios," Eddie Brown said.

Preserved in one of those studios is the bill for the clock. The Seth Thomas Co. submitted an invoice a week before the contractors completed the structure on June 23, 1911. The clockworks tab, including glass, was $3,965, about $92,000 in today's money.

In 1911, on a clear August evening, a series of electric letters appeared at the top of the tower, spelling out "Bromo Seltzer" on a 20-ton revolving steel bottle. The bottle, which was topped off with a crown, was dotted with 314 bulbs high atop the tower. People reported seeing the light on the Eastern Shore, at Tolchester and Love Point.

The slender Bromo Seltzer Tower was built as a commercial office building, but one with an odd footprint that from the day it opened challenged the laws of real estate economics.

"It's 30 feet on a side, and two-thirds of each floor is taken up by stairs, elevator and lobby, meaning there is only room left for 513 square feet," said Joe Wall of Laurel, the building's facilities manager.

Because each floor is so small, bathrooms are located on every third floor. (There is no 13th floor.)

Wall said that falcons occasionally chase prey, including pigeons, into the lofty clockworks chamber, where they cause the elevator motors to malfunction. There is also a bird-filled aerie atop the building. He calls it the "Tippi Hedren Room," named for the star of the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock film "The Birds."

Captain Emerson, a pharmacist who owned the Emerson Drug Co. and acquired his naval title while using his yacht to defend his country during the Spanish-American War, wanted to promote his product with a tall building, like other structures that were attached to the names of famous corporations — Woolworth, Metropolitan Life and Singer, for example.

Upon returning from a trip to Europe, Emerson hired Baltimore architect Joseph Sperry to copy the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy, in steel and brick. The tower, built adjacent to the drug company's plant on the northeast corner of Lombard and Eutaw, went up in less than a year — three-quarters of a million bricks of a curious yellow color, accented by blue tints sprinkled with brown.

The Seth Thomas Clock Co. of Thomaston, Conn., produced the clockworks for the four-sided clock on the 15th floor. The dial is 24 feet in diameter; the minute hand is more than 12 feet long; the hour hand nearly 10. The movement, once driven completely by weights, later was electrified. However, its old (and unused) pendulum remains. The clock's faces are translucent white glass with Roman numerals, and just so people won't forget, there are also 12 letters spelling B-R-O-M-O S-E-L-T-Z-E-R on the face. City building caretakers keep the dials lighted with mercury lamps.

The captain's biggest advertising coup was the 30-ton metal enlargement of a Bromo Seltzer bottle at the top of the tower. A small motor made the bottle spin — one revolution every 30 seconds. The bottle lasted until 1936, when it was dismantled and scrapped. It was so heavy it cracked the building's masonry, Wall said.

John W. Behle from Owings Mills made sure he was the first person to inspect the clock room Thursday night.

"It is an amazing piece of technology," he said. "I could hear the switching gears on the Otis elevator motor and was amazed at how the four sets of hands on the clock are synchronized."

In its original life as an office building, the Emerson Tower, as it was once known, held many local businesses, including the Cone Export and Commission Co., a cotton firm owned by the family of the famous art-acquiring Cone sisters.

In 1969, the adjacent plant was torn down, replaced by the John F. Steadman Firehouse.

Production of Bromo Seltzer was halted about a year and a half ago. Warner Lambert pharmaceuticals had owned Bromo Seltzer, and several years ago its patent was bought by Tower Laboratories of Essex, Conn.

"We were not terribly successful in trying to reposition the brand," said Tower Laboratories' owner and president, Norman Needleman. "We made our last batch about a year a half ago. I felt terrible about discontinuing it. Bromo Seltzer had an amazing history. Most people under the age of 60 don't know the name unless you're from Baltimore."