More than 12,000 tons of some of the world's biggest steel I-beams are in place, with about 4,000 tons more left to raise into the air by November, and the framework is beginning to give some shape to the $151 million expansion and renovation of the Baltimore Convention Center.
With the help of normal weather since the steel started going up nearly 10 months ago, "we are on or ahead of schedule" to get the expansion phase open by September 1996, when the first conventions are booked to use it, said Kim I. McCalla, deputy project manager of the Maryland Stadium Authority and project manager of the Convention Center job.
The job has not been without its challenges.
"Nobody in the United States could fabricate steel I-beams as big as this design required," Ms. McCalla said. "We finally had to go to Belgium to get the I-beams fabricated. They're 4 inches thick, and nobody I've talked with has ever seen anything quite like them. Some of the trusses have several hundred bolts at some of the joints."
The immense steel beams are needed to carry enough of the new exhibition hall's superstructure that fewer columns will be needed inside, thereby making possible a main hall with more open space than most convention centers have.
"We'll have an area with 185,000 square feet and only four columns visible on the inside," Ms. McCalla said. "That's a fraction of the number of columns you have obstructing the inside of most centers this size."
The administration of then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer pushed the project through the legislature amid forecasts that the existing center was about to begin losing business to nearby cities that were building bigger facilities.
The existing building was able to accommodate 85 percent of all U.S. conventions when it was built in 1979, but the growing size of conventions and exhibitions now limits it to about 60 percent of the trade, said Gilbert Stotler, spokesman for the center.
"We will be back to being able to bid for 85 percent of the business when this project is completed," Mr. Stotler said.
The project has become a favorite topic of conversation among commuters and baseball fans whose regular trips take them past it.
Like most big jobs, it has attracted its own following of "regulars" who show up in good weather and bad to watch the progress of the work.
"Some of them chat with me almost every day," Ms. McCalla said. "They arrive with questions from the work they've been watching, and it adds a nice feeling to the job."
What they'll be seeing next is the installation of conduits and openings to handle the miles of wiring, plumbing and mechanical lines and other connections that have to be put in place before the rest of the building goes up.
Once they are in place, floor slabs will go down, and then the granite, precast concrete and metal of the outer walls will go up, she said.
The outer walls are designed to be in keeping with the appearance of the existing Convention Center, with glass at street level, granite on the sloping dome and metal paneling around the ballroom, which will be the biggest in Maryland when it opens.
Once the new building is completed next year, work is to start on the renovation of the existing building, scheduled for completion about a year later.
The carefully phased schedule is designed to keep one part of the facility or another in operation to keep the convention business and revenues flowing as freely as possible.
But it does not call for a full year of "stable operation" until 2000, when the center is expected to generate $40 million in city and state tax revenues, compared with an estimated $20 million had Maryland not undertaken the project.