BG&E; substation facades saved


Of the many different kinds of historic buildings, few have less of a constituency than the old electric substations run by the Baltimore Gas and Electric. Co. and its predecessors.

Since utility buildings aren't open to the public, people generally don't warm to their preservation the same way they get excited about sites like Camden Station or the Washington Monument. That makes a decision by the University of Maryland noteworthy and commendable. Planners have decided to incorporate the main facades of a two-building electric substation on Pratt Street that dates from the 1890s into a new parking garage on the downtown Baltimore campus.

No one demanded that the facades be saved, and keeping them will cost slightly more than razing them. Despite that, the university decided it was best to retain them.

"It's a gesture to the neighborhood and to the city, especially the Ridgely's Delight area and the Sailcloth Factory" apartment building next door, said campus architect Cal Correll. "The university wants to be a good neighbor."

The $9.9 million garage will provide 976 parking spaces for the university's faculty, staff and students to use by day, and for patrons of Oriole Park at Camden Yards and others to use at night. Oriole Park is about five blocks away; the Babe Ruth Museum is even closer.

The substation, near Pratt and Penn streets, was one of the city's first electrical distribution centers. The westernmost building, Romanesque in design, dates from around 1890. Its neighbor dates from 1923 and is more Georgian in appearance.

After being replaced by BG&E;'s Greene Street substation, the Penn Street property was acquired by the university in December. It is ideal for parking since it is on the fringe of campus and close to several projects now under construction.

Aware of the substation's significance both as an historical artifact and as a humanizing element on the streetscape, campus planners decided to save the front facades and construct the garage behind them.

"Facadism isn't usually good, but in this case it's a worthy thing," Mr. Correll said. "These structures were built back in the days when the utility companies were putting up some very handsome buildings."

"Pratt Street is one of the main entrances to downtown. The texture and scale and design quality of this new building are very important, and the Maryland Historical Trust indicated that these buildings were of considerable value," he added.

The university also plans to save a small gatehouse at the corner of Penn and Pratt streets that dates from just after the Civil War. The building used to be the office for the M. Gault and Sons stone yard.

The "design-build" team includes the Whiting Turner Contracting Co. and its architects, BWJ Inc. and Desman Parking Inc., and preservation architect W. Boulton Kelly. They have made several moves that help the old fit in with the new, so the facades don't seem pasted on.

The nine-story garage breaks down compositionally into pieces that correspond to the size and scale of the older structures. Its window openings and the rhythm of its brickwork are reminiscent of nearby loft buildings. The salvaged facades form a base for the garage that rises above them -- satisfying campus guidelines that require new buildings to have a base, middle and top. The garage will be clad in brick and precast stone.

Incorporating the substation facades with the garage will cost $200,000 to $250,000 more than razing them and building an all-new structure. To make up the difference in cost, the architects added about 100 parking spaces that will generate fees needed to pay off the construction bonds. As a result, no taxpayer funds are being used.

When it opens in mid 1994, the garage will contain office space on the first level to further animate Pratt Street.

Back to life

Other recently completed preservation projects include the former SS. Philips & James Roman Catholic Church at 2715 N. Charles St., now home of the Johns Hopkins University Press; and a former Goucher College building at 2300 N. Calvert St., now the Women's Business and Resource Center.

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