Five years ago, a Johns Hopkins University trustee committee recommended that the late-1920s apartment house known as Wolman Hall be demolished to make way for a larger, more modern residential complex for undergraduates.

But this summer, the seven-story building at 3339 N. Charles St. reopened after a $15 million renovation, the centerpiece of a $33.5 million, four-building renovation project launched to improve living conditions for Hopkins students. At its base is a new dining hall and outdoor cafe that will add life to Charles Street from early morning until late at night.

Hopkins' refurbishment of Wolman and three neighboring buildings represents a significant preservation achievement for Baltimore. All told, the project is one of the largest and most expensive undertakings of its kind in the city, comparable in scope to the renovation of the B&O; Warehouse in Camden Yards. It is a welcome sign of pragmatism on the part of Hopkins and level-headedness on the part of city planners and community leaders.

And it is no small tribute to the special brand of architectural alchemy practiced by Frank Gant Architects, a seven-member Baltimore firm that is rapidly becoming one of the premier experts not just at saving old buildings but making them better than they ever were before. Working with Knott Development Co., Mr. Gant's firm pulled off nothing less than an urban miracle, prescribing a way to save a part of vintage Baltimore that might have been wiped off the map.

"This is one of the few urban neighborhoods in the country that has not been touched by modern architecture or 1960s-style urban renewal," Mr. Gant said on a recent tour of the area. "It still looks essentially the same as it did in the 1930s. If the folks who wanted to tear it down had their way, Charles Village would have been damaged significantly."

Mr. Gant and his associates -- project manager Mark Hirth and interiors architect Pamela Bolstad-Blom -- became involved with the Hopkins buildings shortly after an ad hoc trustee committee recommended that they be demolished. In addition to Wolman Hall, the trustees were willing to part with McCoy Hall at 3401 N. Charles St.

Built more than 60 years ago as commercial apartments, both were acquired by Hopkins in the 1960s for student housing and proved adequate for many years in supplementing the freshman dorms on the school's Homewood campus. But as the undergraduate population grew and more parents wanted students to stay in university-owned housing after freshman year, the apartment buildings, still in their original configuration, were insufficient to house them all. Members of the trustee committee believed that to keep Hopkins competitive, the university should tear them down and start over again.

But some officials were not convinced that the buildings couldn't be salvaged. One was Robert Schuerholz, executive director of facilities management for Hopkins. In 1987, he hired the joint venture of Mr. Gant's firm and Knott Development Co., which proposed to save both buildings and increase the number of students housed there from 500 to 1,000. They subsequently were hired to renovate Bradford Hall at 3301 St. Paul St., which opened last year, and Ivy Hall at 10-12 E. 33rd St., which also opened this summer.

In each case, the architect's challenge was to reorganize the buildings internally so more residents could be housed comfortably, with rental income from the additional residents helping pay for the cost of the improvements. Increasing the project's difficulty was that these buildings were no gems, but Plain Jane commercial structures put up quickly and on the cheap. At the same time, they have a sense of age and tradition that suit Baltimore and Hopkins, and they form a coherent urban ensemble that helps anchor upper Charles Village.

Given these constraints, Mr. Gant was a particularly good choice for this project. Plenty of restoration architects look good when they have decent buildings to work with, such as City Hall or Pennsylvania Station. Mr. Gant's special genius is that he can take a less than stellar building, even one ready for the wrecking ball, and make it look and work better than it did on opening day.

Past examples of his work include the conversions of the apartment house at 101 W. Monument St. to the Peabody Court Hotel, the Mount Royal Hotel to the International House apartments (also for Hopkins) and the former Seton High School to the headquarters of the Prudential Health Plan. His signature is the dazzling entrance, the dramatic night lighting, the dynamite paint job and other touches that turn a borderline building into a memorable place, without being too extravagant.

The hotel look

Wolman Hall, designed to house 486 sophomores (although freshmen and sophomores will both live there this year), is the largest of three Hopkins buildings that the Gant-Knott team has completed so far. It originally had long central corridors that ran from Charles Street to St. Paul Street, with a streel-level entrance at either end and apartments on both sides of the corridors. To shorten the space-consuming corridors, Mr. Gant divided the building into an east wing and a west wing. He then filled in one of the niches on the north side of the building to create a handsome two-story entrance facing 34th Street.

Outside, he faced the new entrance with Georgian marble that echoes the look and detailing of the original marble on the side of the building. Inside, he used Italian ceramic tile flooring, an ash and marble reception desk, suspended alabaster lamps and glass block skylights to make a lobby that feels more like the entrance to a sophisticated hotel than a student dorm.

On the upper levels, apartments are broken into suites in which four students share a kitchen and bathroom, and every bank of suites shares a common living room. The bedrooms, either singles or doubles, are small but adequate, with furniture that can be moved and stacked in various configurations and wiring for a computer in every room.

The idea behind the suite-style arrangement, Mr. Gant said, was to promote more of a sense of family by giving students semiprivate living space and bathrooms, rather than the gang bathrooms and communal kitchens found in many older dorms. Because the new layout provided a way to accommodate more students than the old apartments did, the university could afford higher quality finishes such as the marble-clad entry and brass door hardware. Those upgrades, in turn, make the common areas more inviting to be in -- and more likely to be used. It's a philosophy that subtly encourages students not to hole up in their rooms for the semester but to get out and meet as many people as possible.

"The university would probably object [to the term], but I think this really is a hotel for students," he said. "It's hotel-like living."

Quality workmanship is evident throughout. But the most unexpected space is the first-level dining hall, called Wolman Station. Unlike stuffy cafeterias where students all wait in the same slow line, this one is something of a cross between a traditional collegiate dining hall and a shopping mall food court. After going past individual serving counters for dinner entrees, pizzas, sandwiches, desserts and other fare, students can find a seat either in the airy main dining room, more intimate side dining rooms or an outdoor cafe overlooking the Homewood campus. Besides providing an attractive alternative to the standard college cafeteria, this surprisingly cheerful place sets an upbeat tone for the whole building.

Too successful?

If there is any drawback to Hopkins' revamped student housing, it's that it may be so successful in addressing students' needs that they'll never have the urge to venture into the rest of the city. In a sense, these suite-dorms are to real apartments what Harborplace is to Baltimore's municipal markets -- a tamer, more sanitized version of the real thing. Wolman Station is the new Homewood Deli. And that's probably just what parents want to see -- although Mr. Gant predicts the buildings' very affiliation with the university will make students want to bust out once in a while.

The wonder of it all is that many people will walk right by these buildings and not even notice a change. And that, more than anything, is the essence of Mr. Gant's quiet but effective design approach: His buildings may be richer, warmer and more attractive than ever once he gets through with them. But they also seem as if they've always been that way.

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