"Don't slip!" an inmate yelled through a cell window to men working yesterday on the roof of Baltimore's old city jail gatehouse.
If the convict had looked a little closer, he might have asked the workers to toss him a pair of their tin snips.
In a $4,200 quick-fix job yesterday to secure loose stones and mortar on the 139-year-old building, workers from the Tipton Construction Co. used a crane to surround several chimneys and two octagonal towers with 350 feet of galvanized chicken wire.
"We're putting some safety net around it to keep any mortar or stones from falling, although none has fallen yet," said Robert Tipton, 60, the contractor. "It doesn't look like whoever did the last mortar work knew what they were doing, like somebody just smeared some mud in there."
Falling bricks have injured or killed people nationwide in recent months. Last December, crumbling facades in New York shut down part of Madison Avenue for 12 days during the Christmas shopping season. In May, the rear wall collapsed on a long-vacant Baltimore rowhouse on North Fulton Avenue.
A call for bids is set to go out next month to re-point the upper part of the Tudor Gothic prison building at Buren and Madison streets -- a castle-like structure criticized in the past as a "palace for felons" -- just east of the Fallsway.
The cost of stabilizing the stones is estimated at $127,000.
From ground level, the eye can easily discern places where the stones appear to be held in place by nothing more than one another.
"We were doing repairs on the roof about three weeks ago and found some suspect areas that could present a problem," said John Dexler, director of facility operations and maintenance at the detention center. "This should hold until money is available from the capital budget for a permanent fix. That work should begin shortly after July 1."
The gatehouse is used as administrative offices for the Baltimore City Detention Center, the name for the city jail since the state took it over in 1991. The original jail that accompanied the gatehouse -- designed by Thomas Dixon, the architect of Mount Vernon Place Methodist Church -- was razed in 1958.
In 1964, despite protests from preservationists and citizens dismissed as "sentimentalists," an octagonal tin and pine cupola that topped the castle was torn down as part of a $4.5 million project to modernize the jail.
Newspaper reports said the dome could have been saved for $100,000, but the warden at the time, Hiram L. Schoonfield, said it served only as a pigeon roost.
Watching as his men snipped wire and made it fast to the sooty granite chimneys yesterday, Tipton remarked: "It's a beautiful old building. Baltimore City's got a lot of beautiful buildings."
Pub Date: 6/17/98