Making the grade, but not on the level; In Little Italy, stone mason and activist Roberto Marsili finds lots to fault in the slanted brick facade of a new parking garage; ARCHITECTURE


Something's crooked in Little Italy, and it isn't the corkscrew pasta at Sabatino's. A three-story garage is being built at the southwest corner of Central Avenue and Bank Street. Its simple lines, colorful Italian crests and brick veneer are designed to fit into the surrounding neighborhood of historic row- houses and restaurants.

But now that it's nearing completion, it has begun to acquire a feature that makes it unlike any other building in the immediate area.

The difference is crooked bricks: On the east and west sides of the garage, where the street is relatively level, masons are laying the bricks level, too. But on the north and south sides, where the street slopes gradually downhill from west to east, the masons are laying the bricks on an angle that corresponds to the grade.

Sloping bricks may not concern business owners who just want to see more parking spaces near Little Italy. And the slant is gradual -- most passers-by may not notice it right away. But Baltimore is a brick city, perhaps the country's quintessential brick city, built by generations of skilled masons. To the purist, those sloping bricks can be as distasteful as a bad batch of cannoli.

"It's atrocious," says Roberto Marsili, a stone mason and civic activist who lives on Albemarle Street. "It looks as though the building collapsed in an earthquake. You don't lay bricks this way. It's out of character with all the brick work in the area. It's an insult to Little Italy and the brick masonry trade."

Marsili ran for mayor this year on the Republican ticket and lost to David Tufaro in the September primary. As president of the Little Italy Community Organization, he has for many years taken a strong interest in the quality of public works projects, from the stone wall at the base of Federal Hill to the bulkheads along the lower Jones Falls.

The city is building the 410-space garage at a cost of $3.2 million for use by tenants of the refurbished Bagby building nearby, patrons of Little Italy restaurants and others.

When he first noticed the bricks, Marsili says, he thought it was a mistake and that the masons should do it over. He's concerned about what it says about the craft of brick masonry and the erosion of construction standards in general.

"There are methods and ethics in brickwork," he says. "Brick is meant to be laid horizontally level and vertically plumb -- all the time. That's why bricks have right angles. You can go any place in the world and see that. It's not intended to be laid to conform to the slope of floors or ramps or decks. If it was, every building in the city would be at a different angle."

But according to Floyd Zanchetta, the city's building inspector on the job, the bricklayers have done nothing wrong. Zanchetta says the masons, Glisson Masonry from Manchester, are building the garage in accordance with the specifications of the designer, Whitney, Bailey, Cox and Magnani (WBCM) of Towson, as approved by the city and the community. He said the design violates no city building codes and poses no safety hazard.

"This is what the designers wanted," said Zanchetta. "Where the wall is level, the brickwork is level. Where the wall is at an angle, the brickwork is at an angle. There's nothing wrong with the building structurally. ... Everything is as per code."

David Kimball, project architect for WBCM, confirmed that the sloping brick pattern was intentional. He explains that the garage's design was driven by its precast concrete structural system. The brick veneer was applied so the building would fit in better with Little Italy.

"We knew we couldn't duplicate the delightful scale of the Little Italy rowhouses, but at least we could give it the warmth of brick as opposed to exposed concrete," Kimball says. Shaving bricks to keep the courses horizontal would have been a "mason's nightmare," he adds.

Kimball says that when the design was reviewed by Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel and representatives from two Little Italy community groups, no one objected to the brick pattern. He said city officials tried to meet with Marsili's group to gets its reaction, but the group did not respond. (Marsili says he is not aware that the Little Italy Community Organization was asked to review the garage plans.)

While Kimball believes the final brick design is appropriate, he says he can understand why observers such as Marsili may be troubled. "Like any project, there are certainly other ways of doing it. If I had to do it all over again, I might look at it more closely," he says. "But unfortunately, no one suggested it at the time. ... It's too late now."

Zanchetta said he can think of another case in which masonry blocks were laid on an angle -- the Best Products Co. showroom in Towson that was torn down two years ago. That project, known as the "Tilt Building," was part of a series of stores with unconventional facades that were designed to jolt people driving past.

Marsili remembers the Best building, but he doesn't think it justifies the garage. "That was in a suburban shopping center. This is in the historic Fells Point-Little Italy corridor. It's not the same at all. You will not find any other buildings around here where the bricks are out of level intentionally."

He also notes that many other brick buildings in town have been constructed with ramps or on sloping grades, including the two stadiums in Camden Yards, yet they don't have bricks laid on a slant.

"It's like lying," he says. "After you tell one lie, then you have to tell another to cover up the first one. It keeps getting you in more and more trouble. The same is true with the bricks when they're not level."

The heart of the issue, both sides agree, is the way bricks are used to clad modern buildings. A century ago, brick walls typically were load-bearing, and the bricks had to be level or the wall wouldn't stand very long. But for the garage, with its precast concrete frame, the brick is just a decorative veneer, like wallpaper.

That's what puts Little Italy's new garage on such a slippery slope. The designers, to their credit, chose to clad the building with bricks so it would fit in with its surroundings. Yet their good intentions have been undermined by the way those bricks are being applied.

On the south side of the garage, there's a planting strip where the city could eventually grow climbing ivy to hide the sloping brick wall. But there's no similarly convenient remedy for the Bank Street side. And as long as the bricks remain on a slant, it will never entirely fit in.

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