An end to elegance on Reservoir Hill

In the Roaring '20s, the rich and influential of Baltimore danced the night away on the hardwood floors of the Esplanade, the Emersonian and Temple Gardens.

But now, those same floors are being ripped out -- along with the chandeliers, glass doorknobs and high ceilings that for nearly a century gave these apartment buildings a grand irreplaceable character.


In their place will be modern apartments with new kitchens, plumbing and central air conditioning. The developer of the buildings -- called Renaissance Plaza -- says the changes are an inevitable sign of the times because it's just not possible to market such lavish turn-of-the-century splendor in the Reservoir Hill of 1995.

But for some Baltimoreans, the changes are an indication that another part of city living has faded into the woodwork.


"This is what grand living was like 80 years ago," said Clarence Hill, 52, as he proudly showed his penthouse apartment at the Emersonian.

Mr. Hill's apartment is on the seventh floor, one of the few floors exempted from renovation work being done by Norristown, Pa., developer Israel Roizman. But the rest of the Emersonian, built in a Mediterranean style, will be stripped to make way for the modern apartments.

The interior of the Esplanade already has been converted to low- to moderate-income units, labeled as "homogenized apartments" by critics who say they have no remnants of their former old-world charm.

As Mr. Hill looks from his balcony at the panoramic view of Druid Hill Park, he can see workers tearing out the floors at Temple Gardens. Generic carpet and white tile will replace them. "The Emersonian represents the last stand for this grandeur. This is it. It's going to be ripped out," Mr. Hill said.

He, his mother and a roommate pay a total of $735 a month in rent. "I say the city is the big loser in all this. They're going to lose something very unique, very special, very much a part of its own history," said Mr. Hill.

Helen Dale, a psychologist who lived in Temple Gardens for 13 years before being relocated during renovations, is trying to organize tenants to buy the Emersonian.

"We're trying to maintain a good piece of Baltimore. We believe in the city and we want to save this part of it," Mrs. Dale said.

Why is the look of the apartments being changed from faded elegance to plasterboard?


Nobody will pay top dollar to live there anymore.

Many of the apartments are dilapidated, and the cost to renovate them is prohibitive. Most renters can't pay what would be the going rate -- about $2,000 a month -- for a restored five-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot apartment.

"I understand there is a nostalgia for the way the apartments used to be. I sympathize. But the market can't support what we would have to charge for apartments that size," said Patricia Massey, executive director of Baltimore Housing Partnerships.

On a recent tour of the Esplanade, Ms. Massey proudly showed zTC off the new look of the building. "There had to be changes. People were leaving because it was in such bad shape," she said, noting that 92 of the 95 apartments there are now occupied.

Reservoir Hill has its share of crime and many renters are put off by the idea of living next to some of the city's open-air drug markets, such as those on nearby Whitelock Street. Past managers of the buildings said they were often frustrated because they were unable to rent apartments that seemed to have so much going for them.

"Some of them are just spectacular. But it was very difficult to find takers," said Gene H. Novak of Wallace H. Campbell Co., which formerly managed the building.


Once, in the mid-1980s, the Campbell company started a substantial ad campaign to rent the Emersonian's famous "Mansion in the Sky" -- a 3,260-square-foot marvel on the top floor with marble sinks, decorative columns and a grand ballroom with the Seal of Baltimore painted on the ceiling.

But nobody wanted to pay the $2,000-a-month asking price.

The Mansion in the Sky has been empty for more than a decade. It was used several years ago for a scene in the movie "Homicide" starring Joe Mantegna.

The downturn in recent decades of the "Reservoir Towers," as they were called during one of the many campaigns to revive interest in them, is a story of a city that lost touch with a part of its past.

In their day, these monolith-like buildings -- erected between 1912 and 1926 -- were a cornerstone of Baltimore social life and housed many prominent city families. One of the most notable was Capt. Isaac Emerson, a lavishly wealthy man and founder of the drug company that made Bromo Seltzer.

Local lore has it that Captain Emerson built the Emersonian as part of a vicious spat with his ex-wife. Mrs. Emerson lived in a mansion the couple had built at 2500 Eutaw Place, and the captain supposedly had the Emersonian built to block her view of the lake.


Even in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, the buildings enjoyed prosperity -- but of a different kind. They became Bohemian party spots and an enclave for such artists as Baltimore filmmaker John Waters, who lived in Temple Gardens from 1973 to 1989 and came up with movie ideas there.

"I remember it fondly. I took many LSD trips in that place," Mr. Waters recalled.

"They were beautiful Old World apartments. Many gay people and arts students were living there. The faded elegance was very appealing," said Mr. Waters.

Mr. Waters, who now lives in Guilford, said he was disappointed to hear about the renovations at his old building. "To me, rehabbed means wrecked. They take all the character and age out of a building and make it look ugly," he said.

Linda Lapides, a member of Baltimore Heritage, the city's largest private preservation organization, called the renovation "the turning of elegance into mediocrity."

Mr. Roizman, the developer, has described the work as "gut rehab," including all-new mechanical systems and appliances and removal of lead paint and asbestos. The Emersonian will contain 61 apartments, Temple Gardens, 146, and the Esplanade, 95.


Eighty-four apartments will be rented without subsidies at monthly rates of $416 to $640. The other 218 will be reserved for current tenants, elderly tenants and applicants who earn between $19,500 and $28,300 a year.

All three buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The city's Commission on Historic and Architectural Preservation approved plans for the renovation work.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who met with residents last week at the Emersonian to hear their concerns about preserving the building's old style, said he plans to send a team of inspectors to evaluate the work done so far.

"They're lovely buildings. I can understand how the tenants value the interior. I want to make sure that we do all that we can to preserve it," Mr. Schmoke said.

The mayor said he also wanted to make sure the buildings are rented to a good socioeconomic mix. "I was worried that the way we seem to be going is that we're going to pack a lot of Section 8 recipients into the Esplanade, and that down the road, we would probably have some problems by just packing a heavy concentration of low-income people in one building," Mr. Schmoke said.

Officials on the renovation project said they have taken what steps they can to preserve some aspects of the buildings. But economic reality -- hardwood floors cost $10 a square foot vs. $1.50 a square foot for tile -- also has to be considered, they say.


Daniel P. Henson III, the city's housing commissioner, said that although the Renaissance Plaza renovation is being handled by private industry, the city has invested $10 million in the project in the past three years.

"We have a concern about the design, because they're magnificent buildings and there's a lot of history to them," Mr. Henson said. "But let's face it, the developer has legitimate concerns about marketability. We can't have three huge empty buildings sitting around Druid Hill Park."