Whither the 'mn' Sign?


NationsBank Corporation's recent decision to acquire MN Financial, parent company of Maryland National Bank, answers important questions about the fate of Maryland's largest lender and presents a wealth of opportunities for the regional banking giant from Charlotte, N. C.

But it also presents a dilemma for the new owner: What to do about the large illuminated "mn" signs atop the Maryland National tower at 10 Light Street?

Assuming NationsBank puts its own name on Maryland National's branches, the promotional value of the "m" and "n" would drop about as low as recent savings account interest rates. The logo's continued presence could even work to NationsBank's detriment, creating confusion in the marketplace. It would be as if the bankers inside all began wearing shirts or blouses with the wrong monograms.

NationsBank hasn't officially announced that it will rename Maryland National, but that's the pattern it has followed in similar transactions. "I don't know of any other bank that has merged with NationsBank that hasn't taken its name," observes Maryland National spokeswoman Darlene Frank.

The obvious solution: Remove the misleading monogram.

As shown in old photographs, the 34-story tower on Light Street has a very handsome top, one that was all the more attractive without the letters. As the building rises to the sky, its top is recessed and buttressed, climaxing in a copper mansard roof that slopes on each of its four sides. It's the kind of slender, stepped-back silhouette that most developers don't build anymore because the top floors are unprofitably small. (With its pointed aluminum crown and 13 setbacks, NationsBank's new 60-story headquarters in Charlotte, designed by Cesar Pelli & Associates, is a refreshing exception.)

And here NationsBank's top executives ought to know exactly what they're inheriting in Baltimore, if they don't already:

It's not just the colorful initials, although Maryland National certainly has gotten great mileage out of them. The building itself is arguably the best-looking and most-beloved high rise in town, Baltimore's only Art Deco skyscraper. Built just before the Great Depression, it's a local version of the Empire State Building -- soaring, exuberant, majestic.

When it opened, it was the tallest building on the Eastern Seaboard outside New York City -- a proud symbol of Baltimore's belief in the future. No other local building exceeded its 509-foot height until the 529-foot USF&G; Corp. tower surpassed it in 1973.

The Baltimore Trust Co. built the tower at a cost of $6.6 million; the architects were Taylor & Fisher and Smith & May. The first tenants took occupancy in October, 1929 -- just before the stock market crash that preceded the Depression.

Within two years Baltimore Trust went out of business, and the building remained largely vacant through the 1930s. It was purchased by a Hagerstown businessman in the early 1940s, renamed the O'Sullivan Building, and rented to government agencies.

In 1949, state officials proposed buying the tower for $5 million to house state agencies (shades of the state's plan to purchase the nearby tower known as 6 St. Paul Centre), but the idea ran into opposition and was abandoned. Later that year the Fidelity-Baltimore National Bank and Mathieson Chemical Company bought the building and renamed it the Mathieson Building. It kept the Mathieson name until 1962, when Fidelity-Baltimore became Maryland National Bank.

An affiliate of the Equitable Life Assurance Society now owns the building, but MNC controls it through a long-term "master lease." NationsBank presumably would inherit that lease as part of its acquisition. Since the building has not been protected by any landmark status, NationsBank would be free to remove the initials.

There may be some resistance to the idea at first, since the sign has been up for more than two decades and is a familiar sight for many.

The bank added the neon sign in 1971 at a cost of $160,000. Letters on the north and south sides are 12 feet high and are permanently white. The ones on the east and west are 28 feet high and change colors. Except for several years in the mid-1970s, when the sign was turned off to save energy, they have been used to forecast the weather. To help patrons decipher the code, the bank used to distribute business cards with this saying:

When the sign is red

warm weather's ahead.

When the sign is blue

cooler weather's due.

An amber light

means no change in sight.

When a color moves in agitation

There's going to be precipitation.

No matter what color they turned (the blinking stopped in the 1980s), the letters have been worth their weight in gold for the bank -- serving as a four-sided billboard visible from just about anywhere downtown. And that's now the quandary for NationsBank: after all those years of image-building, the letters will lose their meaning if the bank's name is changed.

What to do with the "m" and "n"?: An enterprising planner at the University of Maryland suggests the bank donate them to the university, which could reconfigure them to read UM. This opens a range of other possibilities.

Other cities have signs that are cherished landmarks in the sky, such as the red neon Pegasus sign in Dallas. In Baltimore, the Domino's sugar sign certainly has that kind of following -- almost a cult status (as did the Bromo Seltzer bottle atop the Bromo Seltzer Tower.)

"mn" may have its share of fans, too, but it isn't the same caliber in terms of historic significance. It hasn't been around long enough to be a real landmark, for one thing, and it's too generic and commercial to be truly representative of Baltimore's vaunted quirkiness -- an image, say, that Barry Levinson might want to zoom in on for "Homicide."

Perhaps NationsBank could sponsor a competition to find a symbol that is more fitting for the times and the city. Or it could just take the building back to its original appearance and light the mansard roof in a dramatic way -- as it has done with its tower in Charlotte.

Stripped of its sign, the Light Street tower would be a constant reminder of all the banks and other companies that have been absorbed by out-of-state conglomerates or disappeared entirely over the past decade. A giant, symbolic hole in the skyline -- to signify all the holes left by the recession.

That's not a very comforting message. But in many ways, it would be the ultimate sign of the times.

Edward Gunts, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, writes about architecture and development issues.

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