Alexander Brown building at risk


It survived the Great Fire of 1904, but will it survive the Great Move of 1997?

That's the issue confronting the historic Alexander Brown & Sons building at 135 E. Baltimore St., a brick-and-granite landmark that is likely to be vacated as a result of the investment banking firm's recent decision to consolidate nearly 1,000 downtown employees in the Commerce Place office tower at 1 South St.

Although Brown's decision to stay downtown has been hailed as a boost for the city's revitalization efforts, it raises questions about the fate of the beaux arts-style building, once the firm's main banking house and now home to its "private client" division.

Designed by Parker and Thomas, the two-story building was constructed in 1900, 100 years after the firm was founded.

Made of "Harvard" brick with granite trim and topped by a stained-glass dome, it survived the 1904 fire when buildings around it burned. Its look of permanence continues inside, where mahogany woodwork and marble floors and pillars reflect the heritage of a firm considered "the oldest name in investment banking."

Alex. Brown outgrew that building and has employees spread over a half-dozen other buildings downtown, including an office tower at 120 E. Baltimore St. But the original building was renovated in the 1980s and has continued to signal the firm's presence in the area.

Representatives for Alex. Brown say no final decision has been made about what will happen to 135 E. Baltimore St. once the firm moves to its new quarters in early 1997. They say the only Brown employees who are certain to move into Commerce Place at this point are those at 120 E. Baltimore St. and the Signet Tower at Baltimore and St. Paul streets.

Company officials will decide this summer who else will move to the 30-story tower at 1 South St., which is expected to bear the Alex. Brown name.

A complicating factor is that 135 E. Baltimore St. is not owned by the banking firm but by descendants of founder Alexander Brown, the Griswold family. Alex. Brown spokeswoman Geraldine Leder said the company's lease expires in March 1997 and any decisions about the building after that date will be the owners' responsibility, if the lease is not renewed.

Representatives of the Griswold family could not be reached. But local preservationists say the structure should be saved at all costs.

"It's the kind of building that adds character to the financial district," said architectural historian Phoebe Stanton. "Its destruction would be a real loss to the city." Baltimore architect Walter Schamu noted that it is possible to see signs of damage from the 1904 fire on the building's exterior.

"It's such a great memento of the fire -- a trophy in a way," he said. "It has such a wonderful scale, and it was Alex Brown's corporate logo. When you think of the institution, you think of that building."

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the structure is an "excellent example" of the late-19th- to early-20th-century renaissance in American civic architecture, according to Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.

"Having been designed and built especially for Alex. Brown & Sons, this building is in effect a living monument to that firm," preservation analyst Fred Shoken wrote in 1985.

If it is vacated, the Brown building would be the latest of several small but significant structures downtown that are losing occupants as organizations seek newer quarters. Others include the Mercantile-Safe Deposit and Trust Co. building on Redwood Street.

"Nobody seems to want the real estate," Mr. Schamu said.

Ironically, the Brown building's location is what helped it survive the 1904 fire when many other so-called fireproof buildings were destroyed, according to Frank Kent, author of a history of the firm.

"The reason the Brown building escaped was not alone due to its fireproof construction . . . but to the fact that the buildings surrounding it were all so much higher that they probably created a partial vacuum above the spot where the low building stood," he wrote.

"The wall of the tall building adjoining on the left fell at an early stage in the fire, covering the Brown roof with a mass of brick to the depth of three or four feet," he added. "This served as an additional protection against the fire."

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