Architectural gem is bank's new home


One of the early architectural gems of Baltimore's Charles Center renewal area has been polished and returned to use this spring after years of neglect.

The former Vermont Federal building at 25 W. Fayette St., dormant since the now-defunct thrift moved out and sold the building six years ago, has been reborn as the Harbor Bank Building, new headquarters of the Harbor Bank of Maryland.

The bank's downtown branch began operating from the building's first floor last month, and loan officers and executives will occupy the second and third floors by July.

It is a big move for Maryland's only minority-owned bank, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. It has been based inside the Hamburger's clothing store building at 21 W. Fayette St. -- hardly a fitting location for a lender with $60 million in assets.

"We've been watching this building for at least 5 1/2 years," said bank President Joseph L. Haskins Jr. "I was taken by the marble and stainless steel. I think it gives the building a very stately appearance, an appearance of elegance and strength."

The new headquarters has more than curb appeal. It is an important early example of Modern architecture in Baltimore, representing several "firsts."

Dedicated on Sept. 21, 1964, it was the first building in the city -- and one of the first in the country -- to feature raised flooring to accommodate computer terminals. It was the first to have escalators with glass on both sides. It was the first new office building in Charles Center to be fully leased.

The seven-story building was actually the third structure completed within the 33-acre Charles Center renewal area. It followed One Charles Center, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Hamburger's.

Members of Baltimore's Architectural Review Board were so insistent that the building be of high quality that they made an unusual request of the architect, Edward Q. Rogers.

According to Columbia-based architect George Vaeth, who worked for many years with Mr. Rogers and who now heads the firm that designed Harbor Bank's new home, the review panel asked them to emulate the Pepsi-Cola building at 500 Park Ave. in New York.

Designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore Owings and Merrill, the 10-story Pepsi building was one of his best.

Mr. Vaeth, who heads George Vaeth Associates, said the review board held it up as a model.

"Their direction to us was that this was to be a small jewel," he said. "I remember that we had to go up to New York and look at that building and come up with something pretty much like it -- and we did."

The result is a handsome if somewhat squat building with dark glass, painted aluminum panels, and an overhang on two sides. It actually had two banking floors, one at street level and one on the second level, accessible from the city's skywalk. Planners thought the building would get as much walk-in traffic from the skywalk as from Fayette Street and that they would have two banks for the price of one with the double-decker arrangement.

"It was absolutely redundant," said Stuart Rehr, vice president for interior design with the Vaeth office. "They thought they had two prime locations, and one just happened to be over the other."

The building also had first-rate materials, including terrazzo floors, stainless steel trim, and green marble panels that matched those at One Charles Center.

Mr. Vaeth and Mr. Rehr said the materials have held up so well they were able to feature them in the design for Harbor Bank, while adding new lighting and other 1990s technology.

They did, however, eliminate a tacky imitation of a Japanese garden that was in the front window.

And they are converting the second banking floor to a lending office.

"It was a custom job from top to bottom," Mr. Vaeth said. "People really spent money on finishes. Thirty years later, they still look great."

Harbor Bank is the anchor tenant of Bofree Limited Partnership, which acquired the building last year. Headed by Larry and Sam Boltansky and Israel and Earl Freedman, Bofree is now seeking tenants for the top four floors.

The only feature of the building that did not hold up well is the value. Larry Boltansky said his group bought it last year for about $1.2 million -- three-fifths of its construction cost of $2 million.

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