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Baltimore's iron building legacy


During the past few years, Baltimore's iron buildings, the products of a local manufacturing specialty exported to other American cities and overseas, have again been getting the recognition they deserve.

First came the artful restoration of the 1871 iron structure at 300 West Pratt St., known today as the Marsh and McLennan Building. Before Christmas, an attractive book appeared on the city's cast-iron heritage. Now comes an exhibit of architectural pictures and ornaments at the Maryland Historical Society that will continue until May 1.

This attention is timely.

With the opening of the new Orioles ballpark at Camden Yards, thousands of fans (and investors) will be taking another look at the city's iron building district on Baltimore Street, between Howard and Paca streets. If the new stadium attracts commercial redevelopment to the area -- as is widely expected -- that might present a long-awaited opportunity to return those historic buildings to their former glory. But redevelopment could also threaten them with destruction.

Beginning in the 1850s, Baltimore was one of the nation's foremost centers of manufacturing parts for cast-iron buildings. Relatively few are standing here today. Many of the landmarks were destroyed in the 1904 fire, others wrecked later. Of the two dozen or so that have survived to this day, many are seldom noticed for their grace or significance. A racy strip-tease club obliterates the street-level facade of 332 West Baltimore St., for example. Yet that 1861 structure is deemed to be the city's most important cast-iron building because of its rich and unusual Renaissance design.

Nearby is another remarkable architectural relic. It is the Abell Building, at 329 West Baltimore St., one of the finest Victorian warehouses left in the city. (Like the famed Sun Iron Building, which was destroyed in the 1904 fire, it was built by the family that then owned this newspaper).

Some of the iron heritage is well preserved. City Hall's French Baroque Revival style is breathtaking at night, with its large cast-iron dome illuminated. The Peabody Institute has one of the finest interiors in Baltimore -- the spectacular cast-iron library that rises six floors to the ceiling.

Baltimore Heritage Inc. has spearheaded recent efforts to draw attention to this legacy. The non-profit group has sponsored walking tours and played a key role in organizing the current exhibit and promoting the book by James D. Dilts and Catharine F. Black. Now that the iron-building district seems to be on the threshold of new development pressures, Baltimore Heritage's preservation drive merits the community's renewed support.

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