Architectural sights Tours: Architects pick Baltimore's most admired classic buildings.


If architecture is "frozen music," then it's the detail that contributes the harmony.

Baltimore possesses an array of architectural styles. The Baltimore Architectural Foundation works in conjunction with the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects to "encourage everyone young and old to appreciate and explore architecture and to recognize its contribution to the quality of life."

The BAF offers architectural walking tours of the city, in addition to lectures and other programs.

Walter Schamu is the founder of the BAF and president of SMDA Architects in Baltimore.

"When people attend our walking tours, we tell them to bring binoculars, so they can enjoy the wealth of architectural detail which is usually found above street level," Schamu says.

He points to the NationsBank building (by architects Taylor & Fisher and Smith & May) near the harbor at 318 Lombard St. as one of the best examples of Baltimore architecture. Built in 1929, it is probably the most recognizable city skyscraper because of its elaborate gold-leaf detail on the roof. The tower of this ornate building is reminiscent of an Aztec pyramid.

Other Baltimore buildings worth "looking up" for, according to Schamu, include the Bromo-Seltzer tower at Lombard and Eutaw streets. Designed by architect Joseph Sperry, the 1910 tower is also known for its Florentine and medieval details.

At the Maryland Club, designed by Baldwin & Pennington at 1 E. Eager St., you will see medieval faces staring back at you. The building, which was damaged by fire a year ago, has been restored to the Romanesque design of Henry Hobson Richardson, the 19th-century architect.

Notable as well is the Mercantile Trust and Deposit building by architects Wyatt and Sperry. This 1885 building, at the corner of Redwood and Calvert streets, is unique because it survived the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. Few buildings of this period still exist in the downtown area.

Schamu's office window on Morton Street overlooks perhaps one of Baltimore's most notable architectural wonders, the old Belvedere Hotel at Chase and Charles streets, which is recognizable by its high French Renaissance-Second Empire styling.

To appreciate Baltimore's architectural heritage, residents or visitors can tour neighborhoods such as Mount Vernon, Lexington Market, the business district near the harbor, and Bolton Hill, which Schamu says is "rich in architectural definements -- particularly the ironwork, brick, stone and stained glass."

James Wollon, the Havre de Grace architect who is chairman of Baltimore's Historic Architect's Roundtable, agrees with Schamu in singling out the one building in Baltimore City that contains an entire glossary of architectural detail -- 718 Washington Place. Designed by architect George Archer, the Graham-Hughes house faces the Washington Monument. Bill Ahlfield bought the house in 1983. His is only the second family to live the mansion since it was built in 1889.

The mansion, sometimes referred to as "the wedding cake house" because of its unique styling, was a wedding gift from husband to wife, and, according to local architects, is perhaps one of the best examples of the rare French chateau-style architecture in the United States. Its marble columns and stairs, beautiful three-story turret with turquoise finial at the top, and mask-and-swag encircling design make it a neck-stretching wonder to view.

"In the area around Mount Vernon and Washington Place, there is a high concentration of mid- to late-19th-century buildings which are high style, Wollon said. "In many of the downtown neighborhoods, there are architectural intrusions of buildings which don't match the area's style. But the Mount Vernon area has a wonderful display of pure architecture."

Why is it that buildings constructed during what is generally considered the Victorian period (although this term encompasses many architectural styles) are so thoroughly embellished with intricate architectural detail?

The answer comes from a man who is an expert in the restoration of historic buildings, John Lee, an Annapolis architectural conservator.

"In the years between about 1870 and 1920, there was a tremendous number of highly skilled craftsmen working with exquisite materials, which were in abundance at the time," Lee said. "The Civil War had ended, and they had the use of the new powered machinery. Their attention to detail was superb."

It is no secret that modern buildings do not display nearly the amount of architectural detail found in their ancestors.

"The cost of building materials today precludes the idea to build for eternity," Schamu said. "You don't find the structural integrity or complexity of facades of old buildings in today's architecture.

"Many of the older building materials [for instance, brownstone, marble and granite] just don't exist anymore, or are too expensive. It's not that the quality of old buildings can't be produced today, because there are the craftsmen to do it. It's just that most people can't afford it."

While Wollon agrees that they "don't build them like they used to," he wonders if today's buildings should duplicate those of the past. "Buildings of our day should look like our day," he said.

Lee, who works on buildings dating from as early as the 17th century, notes: "The United States has a remarkable number of talented craftsmen -- it always has, and still does. We just need to concentrate on preserving the original fabric of buildings whenever we can find it, because it is this quality of design which makes us like a place to begin with.

"The details in architecture which we now find so charming, decorative, and even frivolous were considered necessary during the original construction.

"Even middle-class people could afford these features. Today, these architectural embellishments are too expensive to pursue. Also, there are increasingly scarce resources. The best we can do now is try to protect what is already out there."

Walking tours

To take advantage of a walking tour that features the architecture of downtown Baltimore, contact the Baltimore Architectural Foundation at 625-2587.

The Preservation Society (675-6750) offers a brochure that will .. guide you on a tour of historic Fells Point.

In the spring, Baltimore Heritage (625-2585) offers walking tours of the city.

Frank Shivers, who wrote the book "Walking in Baltimore," offers private, themed tours on everything from architecture to literature to the Civil War. He can be contacted at 669-1929.

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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