An old bell tower, looking fresh under four coats of Essex green and coconut cream paint, stands proud as the Jones Falls Valley's newest visual asset, a symbol of the peppy economic life that has transformed a once-moribund corner of the city.
After nearly five months of work, contractors began to remove a veil of scaffolding from the landmark Meadow Mill last week, exposing the results of their renewal labors -- a graceful cupola, a weather vane and a rooftop slate design.
"It has a Kremlinesque tower," said John McGrain, a Baltimore County planner and historian of Baltimore's 19th-century industries. "It's the most visible mill in the valley -- there are great views of it from all the hills."
After 10 years of work and leasing efforts, the 1877 brick mill building is home to about 400 workers -- engineers, educators, commercial bakers and software designers. There is also a large gym-squash center, an art gallery, a pottery center and the Axis Theater on the site at Union Avenue alongside the Jones Falls (the expressway and the stream) and the Woodberry light rail stop.
McGrain, who has studied the former textile mills here for years, notes that the whole complex sold at public auction for $148,000 in 1960. The current owners spent more than $100,000 to restore the mill's tower and cupola, which generate no income.
"All forms of cotton were once milled there," McGrain said, "including cotton duck, which has nothing to do with the animal but is a Dutch word roughly meaning canvas." When it opened in 1877, mill owner William E. Hooper had 6,000 cotton spindles whirling and hundreds of hands -- many of them women and children -- at work there.
In 1989, Meadow Mill was purchased by Samuel Himmelrich Sr., who worked with son Samuel Jr. to rejuvenate the mill by subdividing its expansive maple floors for contemporary business uses. One of the first things they did was to remove the bricks that had been installed in the windows in 1948 when the mill was air conditioned so that synthetic fabrics could be made there.
"The building was structurally sound. It had been well maintained with good utility systems," Himmelrich said, explaining that because the building was nearly all leased, he decided to tackle the most noticed but least used part of the mill.
"The building's renovation was tenant-driven. We had to get to the point where the tenancy was high enough, then we refinanced the mill, and this gave us the money for general improvements," said Himmelrich.
A broad, elegantly curved staircase bends around the tower's interior. Iron treads, impressed in a Victorian typeface with the words "Meadow Mill," cover the pie-shaped steps. Over the decades, this version of an iron carpet has been worn down by the pounding of workers' feet.
Late last summer, workers installed scaffolding around the mill's four-sided tower.
In October, painters sanded off the four L's that stood for the London Fog raincoats made at the mill from 1960 through the 1980s. Using old photographs as models, the painters reinstated a Victorian-style M, for Meadow Mill, on the cupola.
When the mill was owned by the Londontowne Manufacturing Co., a bell that summoned workers to their jobs was removed and used as a decoration in a suburban-style back yard.
Over the years, pigeons roosted in the tower, so many that workers spent a good part of last autumn removing 120 bags of dung.
"It's like the pigeons had a brain or something. They peck away and get in everywhere," said Chris Oktavec, who with his son Pete runs a company that specializes in church and historic restoration.
Oktavec, whose grandfather is credited with inventing Baltimore screen painting, called in others to help with the unusual job.
"I specialize in the lost arts, the jobs that other people don't do or don't want to do," said slater-roofer Ron Leecy, who climbed the scaffolding with co-worker David Cooper to repair the cupola's outer layer of fine-grained shale panels. Many of the cupola's slates were broken or loose. They were repaired, and a band of them painted in a Victorian design.
At the pinnacle, 175 feet above the Jones Falls, the mill's original steel and nickel weather vane had grown stiff. The restoration team cleaned it and renewed its turning mechanism.
"Now the least puff of wind will make it spin," Chris Oktavec said.
Pub Date: 1/23/99