They peer through knot holes in fences and gaze wonderingly from any available vantage point. They like to watch loud, smoky machines that go chunka! chunka! in the dirt, and mighty cranes that lift steel beams with facile majesty.
They are the sidewalk superintendents, people drawn to the muscular atmosphere of construction sites like the great pit where the $160 million expansion to the Baltimore Convention Center is taking form, two blocks west of the Inner Harbor.
The watchers are the kind of inquisitive souls who might have scratched their heads over the design of the Great Pyramid, or kibitzed as the Empire State Building soared. The appeal? The free show, perhaps, the fun of seeing iron workers caper across high beams, the thrill of seeing a building rise hundreds of feet skyward from an empty lot.
The Rev. Millard B. Knowles, 65, is one of those following the Convention Center construction. When he stands on the steps of the Old Otterbein Church, a building which has sat undisturbed at Sharp and Conway since 1771, he looks out over a chasm. It yawns 50 feet deep where his church's front lawn used to be. The ground around much of his church has been dug out. Attendance is down at Sunday services; weddings are off.
But the pastor isn't worried. He has been assured that everything will be restored. "We're going to be sitting here like a little jewel when it's all done," he said confidently.
He's out on the steps a couple of times a week. "I enjoy it," he said. Construction was a family business. "I was raised around this stuff," he added.
John Williams, 77, is drawn nearly every day to the chain-link fence along Conway Street, the southern boundary of the site. Before he retired 13 years ago Mr. Williams built garages and put additions on houses. He has been a supervisor on larger projects, he said, though not so big as this one, which is expected to increase Baltimore's convention business by 70 percent, and create 6,600 new service jobs, mainly in hotels, restaurants, and the cleaning and food supply industries.
Mr. Williams is familiar with nearly every machine deployed in the mud before him, except for one. "There," he said. "That's new. They didn't have that in my time." He points to a yellow, snake-like device that pumps concrete.
His attention shifted to one of the two Link Belt cranes. "That's about 250 feet high," he said. "It can lift 250 tons."
Mr. Williams has seen Baltimore virtually rebuild itself during his lifetime. His eyes squint beneath the bill of his blue cap; they tour the high points of the skyline. He is older than just about every building he sees. "I watch it all," he said.
Larry Hardesty, the senior general superintendent for the Gilbane Building Co., which manages the project, said the hard hats on the site welcome the sidewalk supers: "We're glad to have them. We need all the help we can get around here."
Dennis Castleman strolls up to the fence once a day from his job at the Sheraton Hotel down the street. He doesn't have Mr. Williams' experience, but he's learning.
"I don't know much about it, but if I get out here three or four days a week, it kind of makes sense. I remember being interested in it as a kid."
A fascination with building often begins early. It sustains the toy industry, generation after generation. Now, there are even videos for children that show hard hats at work.
The Maryland Stadium Authority, the supervising agency, reports that when completed in September, 1996, the Convention Center's exhibition areas and meeting room space will be more than double what they are today, up to 300,000 square feet and 85,000 square feet, respectively.
It's a big project, but not the biggest downtown. If it comes in on budget it will cost $30 million more than Oriole Park at Camden Yards, though $40 million less than the Gallery at Harborplace. It began officially in January with a groundbreaking, then the demolition of Festival Hall on Pratt Street. According to the architects who helped design it at the firm of Cochran, Stephenson & Donkervoet Inc., the expansion of the Convention Center will require 14,000 tons of steel, 25,000 cubic yards of concrete and 61,000 square feet of suspended glass.
When finished, the authority said, it will pump $336 million a year into Maryland's economy.
Maybe there will be something in all that for Aaron Wiggins, 38, an unemployed electrician's apprentice who, when he's not working on a site, is usually watching one.
Mr. Wiggins saw the USF&G; Building go up, and the new stadium. He's doesn't rate one project over the other for their entertainment value. "It's just watching buildings being built," he said. "It's nice."
But, for Mr. Wiggins there's more to it: "Everybody's got to work together down there. The welders, the electricians, the plumbers, the crane operators. Everybody's got to cooperate. That's the important thing."
As Mr. Wiggins was revealing this social subtext, a crane hoisted an immense steel truss built to span the space between two upright I-beams. Ida Lou Hudler, standing behind the fence, was almost in its shadow as it glided almost languorously above. She gaped.
"Isn't that amazing!"
It's not the power of the crane that thrilled her. It was the two men in black T-shirts clinging to the truss as it swayed high above a steel deck. They skittered over it like ants on a Popsicle stick.
When the cross-section clanged gently into the uprights, there were a few scary moments until one of the men snapped a steel pin in to join the two pieces, then pounded it home with a mallet.
Mrs. Hudler, 65, who comes from Lutherville a couple of times a month on business, always stops by the fence before taking the Light Rail home. So do many fans coming to Oriole games.
"I wonder how much they make?" she asked her friend, Doris Helfrick, of Timonium, while watching the construction recently.
Four iron workers, having just finished their shift, ambled by dripping hammers and pliers and other tools from their broad belts. "How much do you make?" she asked.
Embarrassment flickered on the face of one of the men. "$18 an hour," he answered.
Mrs. Hudler sucked in her breath. Again she was impressed.