Inspiration found in past Preservation: Publishing company brings new life to Baltimore's Mount Vernon historic district.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In ancient Greece, the agora was the marketplace, the center of civic life.

In modern Baltimore, a publishing company called Agora Inc. bills itself as a "marketplace of ideas." And one of the biggest ideas it is promoting locally is the value of historic preservation -- to a business and to a city.

Over the past four years, Agora has been a one-company preservation squad in Baltimore's Mount Vernon historic district, buying and restoring four of the area's most architecturally significant buildings to house various publishing divisions.

Its gems include the former Marburg Mansion at 14 W. Mount Vernon Place; the former Winans House at 1217 St. Paul St.; the former headquarters of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland at 105 W. Monument St.; and the former Christian Science Building at 702 Cathedral St.

Agora's effort has brought new life to the area around the Washington Monument. It also has benefited the 18-year-old company, whose approximately 200 local employees produce a wide range of investment, travel and health-related publications for an international readership.

"These buildings reflect the grace and elegance of the 19th century," said company president and majority owner William Robert Bonner, 48. "They cause us to aim for a higher standard for our products and ourselves."

For striving to raise the standard, Bonner was honored Tuesday by Baltimore Heritage, a preservation advocacy group.

Bonner received the 1997 Douglas H. Gordon Award, the group's prize for individuals who take a leadership role in local preservation. The award was named for an ardent preservationist who helped save much of Mount Vernon from the wrecking ball in the early 1960s.

"The buildings Agora has taken on are among the most historically and architecturally important in the city," said Baltimore Heritage President William Pencek. Agora has "very lovingly and carefully restored and adapted them for modern office use. And all without asking for public subsidies."

Since moving to the Mount Vernon area in 1994, Agora also has become involved in the city's Adopt-A-Monument program, formed an educational partnership with the St. Alphonsus-Basilica School and opened its buildings for community meetings and tours.

"It's a remarkable record of achievement," Pencek said. "They've set an example for others with their forward thinking. They're intelligently using resources of the 19th century for 21st-century enterprise."

For his part, Bonner sees nothing remarkable in what he has done. To him, it is just good business.

An Annapolis native who studied at the Sorbonne and Georgetown University Law Center, he said he knows that many corporate executives prefer newer buildings in the suburbs.

But "it just doesn't appeal to us," he said. "So much suburban space is ugly -- low, flat, purely utilitarian buildings."

What Bonner finds inspiring, he said, is working amid the grandeur and craftsmanship of a more refined era.

"In the 19th century," he said, "people aspired to a standard of living that is very different from what most people aspire to today. The values and goals you see reflected here just happen to be ours, too."

Bonner said Agora's approach has been to restore the 19th-century buildings as much as possible, while upgrading mechanical systems and removing 1950s partitions that fragmented once-grand spaces. The chief advantage of reusing old buildings, Bonner said, is that they have handsome spaces that couldn't be replicated today -- and that provide stimulating work environments.

Employees say they like walking outside and hearing students practice at the Peabody Institute down the street, or patronizing the different restaurants and bars in the area.

Bonner said he believes other information-age businesses could benefit from taking Agora's approach.

"It's hard not to be affected by it all -- the sweep of the stairs, the proportions of the rooms," he said. "The standard business analyst would probably look at these buildings and say, 'They're so inefficient.' But there's no way to measure the effect these spaces have on an employee's creativity. All I know is, I'm happy with the results."

Pub Date: 6/19/97

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