IN HIS nearly three decades as president of the University of Baltimore, H. Mebane Turner has acquired all manner of strange and unusual buildings to demolish or fix up for campus use, from the Pat Hays Buick showroom to the former Odorite cleaning supplies emporium.
But none is more attractive or has a more colorful history than the building Turner is eyeing now: the former Grand Lodge of the Knights of Pythias, on the northwest corner of Charles and Preston streets.
The University System of Maryland Board of Regents has recommended that state legislators allocate $5 million so the University of Baltimore can buy the five-story building and convert it to a campus administrative center, freeing space in other buildings for student-related activities.
If the governor and state legislature include the money in their budgets next year and Turner can reach agreement with the sellers, the university could take ownership of the former Maryland Pythian Building by the second half of 1998.
The building is well known as the longtime headquarters of Loyola Federal Savings and Loan Association, which was acquired by Crestar Bank in 1995. It is vacant except for a Crestar branch at street level. Its owner, First Union Bank, wants to sell it for $2.8 million.
The building was constructed as the "castle" for the Knights of Pythias. Founded in 1864, the nonsectarian fraternal order was the first to be chartered by an act of Congress.
Pythias is a character in Greek legend whose loyalty to a friend named Damon saved the lives of both. According to legend, Damon offered his life as pledge that Pythias would return from settling his affairs, after Pythias was targeted for execution for rebelling against the god Dionysius. Pythias returned, and Dionysius relented and pardoned both of them.
According to a local newspaper announcement in 1939, the Pythians considered themselves to be an association of "warm-hearted, red-blooded men" whose influence would lead to higher plane of living and thinking." The order made no class distinction: "The millionaire and the mechanic, the learned and the untutored, sit side by side and receive with equal profit the lessons of service taught at the altar."
The Baltimore lodge was one of 22 in Maryland when the "castle" was constructed in 1927 at a cost of $750,000. Its Italian Renaissance design, by Clyde N. and Nelson Friz, drew high praise for being neither too grandiose nor too gaudy for the city's main north-south thoroughfare. It was the only building in 1927 to receive a certificate of architectural merit from the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Charles Street Association.
"Unquestionably, the Pythian building has struck an admirable note of dignity and simplicity," a Sun editorial noted after the award was bestowed. "If others do not follow, it will not be for lack of a good example."
Clad on two sides in stone and terra cotta, and on the other two sides in brick, the building had retail space on the first level and offices for rent in the second. Besides the upper level meeting hall and committee rooms, it contained an auditorium for 700.
The building is notable for an ornate loggia that overlooks Preston Street. It also has unusually high ceilings on levels where the lodge members gathered. False ceilings were installed when the building was converted to office space, but the original ceilings remain above them. A stairwell on the north side contains several stained-glass windows that bear the mark of the Knights of Pythias.
The Pythians used the building through the 1950s, while opening branches in other parts of Maryland. From time to time, news accounts indicate, some of the members were arrested for showing obscene movies at "stag socials." Eventually, the building became a nightclub, then was converted to offices for Loyola. Today, the interior shows few signs of its past use by the fraternal order. Now, the Knights' loss may soon be the University's gain.
While the Pythians no longer own the Charles Street building, they still meet in several Maryland locations, including lodges or halls in Randallstown, Annapolis, Rising Sun and Gaithersburg.
Like many fraternal organizations, the Pythians have been suffering from declining membership in recent years, as longtime members pass away and few younger members sign up. But they do have an Internet Web page that outlines their principles and invites others to join their ranks.
The Randallstown lodge, which represents the Baltimore area, has 150 members, down from 400 in its heyday, said Nat Brenner, a member since 1939. "We used to be the biggest one in the state," he lamented. "Not anymore. The young people don't want to join organizations like this today. They've got their country clubs and everything."
Pub Date: 8/28/97