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Old warehouse's new life as adjunct to ballpark is a model of creative reuse


When the Orioles and the Maryland Stadium Authority set out to create an old-fashioned ballpark in Camden Yards, they didn't have to invent history.

It was there all along in the form of the B&O; Railroad warehouse, the massive, brooding hulk of a building that dates from the era when Baltimore's western edge was a bustling rail yard -- and Babe Ruth's father had a saloon right down the street.

Looming behind right field, just 460 feet from home plate, the long-as-a-train warehouse rivals Fenway Park's Green Monster as one of the most distinctive features in baseball. More than any other building in the area, it set the tone architecturally for the three-tiered Oriole Park at Camden Yards, lending an air of authenticity and heritage the park wouldn't otherwise have had. With a combined purchase and renovation cost exceeding $30 million, the eight-story warehouse is also one of the most costly

preservation projects ever launched in Baltimore.

In any other year, the completion of such an ambitious renovation would be cause for celebration in itself. In this case, the warehouse's opening was largely upstaged by the ballpark on one side and the light rail line on the other. But for those seeking clues to the architectural success of Baltimore's new ballpark, the decision to preserve the mammoth warehouse was unquestionably one of the most critical, and its contribution doesn't end with its role as a right field backdrop. Inside, it's a national exemplar of adaptive reuse, housing everything from shops and offices to restaurants and banquet rooms. And they've all been created with the same attention to detail and respect for tradition that made the ballpark such a success.

Without the warehouse, the ballpark "would have been completely different," said Janet Marie Smith, the Orioles' vice president for stadium planning and development. "The warehouse is the reference point for everything about the ballpark -- its massing, its scale, its materials."

Natural feature

Described as the longest building on the East Coast, the B&O; warehouse is actually six adjoining buildings of brick and stone, measuring 1,016 feet by 51 feet, and containing 430,000 square feet of space.

Designed by the noted firm of Baldwin and Pennington, and possibly others, the complex was built between 1898 and 1905 to house grain and other goods transported by the B&O; Railroad, now part of CSX Corp. Last used for freight storage in 1974, the warehouse subsequently housed the railroad's archives. In the early 1980s, about all that came between it and the wrecking ball was the high cost of tearing it down. Its link to the ballpark was forged in December of 1986, when the stadium authority identified Camden Yards as its first choice for a sports complex.

On Feb. 14, 1989, after lengthy studies, the Orioles and stadium authority officials announced their joint decision to retain the warehouse, largely because of their belief that it would help give the ballpark the traditional look and flavor they wanted without adding to the project's cost. "This will not be a cookie-cutter stadium like so many others," vowed club president Larry Lucchino. Incorporating the warehouse "will enhance the quality of the park and give us an old-fashioned feel that we all think is important," he added.

Once the decision was made to save the warehouse, the job of planning the renovations fell to Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum's Sports Facilities Group (HOK), lead architect for the ballpark. Omni Construction Inc. was the general contractor, and Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse completed many of the interior spaces.

HOK has had extensive experience with large-scale preservation projects, such as St. Louis Union Station, but combining an historic warehouse with a ballpark was a new challenge. "We started to think of the warehouse as a natural feature, like a waterfall or a cliff," recalls architect Joseph Spear. "I don't think there's another building in the world like it. The warehouse will make it one of a kind forever. You'll turn on the TV in the third inning and know the game's in Baltimore."

Old and new

As part of the renovation, contractors cleaned and repointed the brick exterior, rebuilt the roof, and installed 898 new windows. They resisted the temptation to enlarge any glass openings, even though that would have improved some views from inside, out of deference to the relentless rhythm of the exterior.

The interior layout was influenced largely by the stadium planners' decision to keep Eutaw Street open as part of the ballpark's main concourse, rather than build the seats up against the warehouse. That 60-foot-wide corridor made the street-level space highly logical for a pub, cafe and souvenir shop.

But the stadium authority also wanted to generate revenue from the warehouse's upper levels and worked with the architects and Orioles to identify other uses. The plan was to pull components out of the ballpark itself and move them "off site" into the warehouse, including the Orioles' executive offices on floors 2 and 3 and meeting spaces for the Oriole Advocates and Designated Hitters on the fifth floor.

Along with the ballpark concessionaire, the Orioles and stadium authority identified spaces on the fourth, sixth, seventh and eighth floors that could be used as various kinds of dining and meeting facilities. The stadium authority decided to put those new uses in the north end of the warehouse, where they would overlook the playing field, and leave the south end available for future redevelopment.

Working with the interior, the architects adopted essentially the same approach as they did with the ballpark itself: to blend the best of the old with the state-of-the-art technological advances of the 1990s.

In keeping with this approach, they preserved brick walls, stone trim and other original features that would help maintain the building's rustic, brawny feel -- and provide a distinctive backdrop to the computers and other high-tech equipment inside. When allowed by the fire code to do so, they left wood beams and columns exposed, although the cast-iron columns on lower levels had to be covered with fire retardant materials.

The result is that wherever visitors go, they won't forget they're in the warehouse.

The conversion entailed more than a few engineering feats, such as the careful removal of a column on the third floor to create a conference room for the Orioles. In both the Orioles' offices and Camden Club restaurant, floor sections were cut away to create dramatic two-story spaces.

In the Camden Club on the warehouse's top two levels, the floor openings serve as overlooks that allow diners on the eighth floor to catch glimpses of the more formal seventh floor below -- and vice versa. These two floors are the most in harmony with the traditional tone of the ballpark itself, with rich wood detailing, period lighting and custom fabrics and furnishings that are reminiscent of a turn-of-the-century gentleman's club.

In the Orioles' offices, the two-story space serves as a reception area and lobby, and includes a wide internal stair that connects the two office floors. Massive wooden beams have been exposed, and columns have been left partially uncovered as a reminder of the building's gutsier past. From inside the warehouse, the lush green field provides a backdrop the same way the warehouse provides a backdrop for the ballpark -- the perfect view for the club's offices.

Beyond the lobby, the Orioles made clever use of an inefficiently long and narrow building. Because the Orioles are the sole corporate tenant, they were able to let the center aisles double as work stations, leaving ample space for private offices along each side.

Year-round attraction

For all the interior changes, the exterior remained remarkably intact, with even the old warehouse letters still on the walls. The roof changed more than anything else, becoming something of a platform for light stanchions, kitchen exhaust vents and satellite dishes. The elevator bulkheads disturb the building's strong profile most because they are flush with the east facade and visually break the cornice line in several places. The largest bulkhead has been mitigated, however, by the addition of a large, hand-painted sign that reads, "Welcome to Oriole Park at Camden Yards," instantly signaling that the warehouse is part of Baltimore's new home for baseball.

Along with the respect and resourcefulness they've shown in renovating the warehouse, the planners' chief contribution was their foresight in programming it to stay active year-round, with uses such as the Camden Club, baseball store and banquet rooms.

One of the ballpark's greatest achievements is that it has become an urban activity center that extends the boundaries of downtown Baltimore by drawing millions of people to an area they may have never visited before.

Because of what it now contains -- with room for even more on the south end -- the warehouse will help keep Camden Yards bustling long after the baseball season ends.

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