THE FORMER Mercantile-Safe Deposit and Trust Co. building at Calvert and Redwood streets -- the oldest structure in Baltimore's central business district to survive the Great Fire of 1904 -- will be transformed by year's end into an upscale cocktail lounge and nightclub catering to downtown office workers, hotel guests and conventioneers.
The Board of Liquor License Commissioners for Baltimore City approved a liquor license for the $1.5 million project last month, paving the way for the transformation to begin.
The owner and operator will be Nicholas Piscatelli, a local developer who has been negotiating to buy the vacant building at 200-202 E. Redwood St. from the Orion Group, which has been marketing it for several years.
Piscatelli said he believes Baltimore needs more nightclubs and entertainment venues that appeal to tourists and the growing number of people expected to move downtown over the next several years. He said he believes the two-story bank building, in the heart of the financial district and three blocks from the waterfront, is an ideal location for a nightspot.
"To attract residents downtown, Baltimore City and the state of Maryland are giving tax incentives and grants to those willing to make a commitment to buy or improve a home in the city," Piscatelli wrote to the liquor board.
"With so much enthusiasm and momentum being created to return to the city, we as developers and leaders in the community have a responsibility to provide entertainment that will bring the new residents back to the inner city."
A nightclub is also a good use for a one-of-a-kind building that is not easy to convert to offices or housing, Piscatelli said. He plans to call the operation "Trust" or "Redwood Trust" to emphasize the building's heritage.
"If we are to energize our downtown, we should encourage development that will utilize Baltimore's vacant structures," he stated. "We should applaud developers who commit their resources to the restoration of historic structures, which in turn create employment opportunities and generate income for the city and state of Maryland."
Designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style by Wyatt and Sperry, the 1886 building has 20,000 square feet of space and is considered one of the most significant works of architecture in downtown Baltimore. It is notable for its arched windows, carved stonework and huge, castlelike walls that helped it survive the fire.
It has been vacant since Mercantile closed its branch there in 1993 and its mortgage department moved out the next year.
The restoration architects are Kann & Associates and King Design.
Piscatelli said all original architectural features will be preserved and that the exterior will be cleaned and restored in accordance with historic guidelines.
Inside, drop ceilings that were installed in the 1970s will be removed to reveal the original plaster ceiling, which will be painted in decorative colors to accentuate its rosettes and moldings. The mezzanine level will be returned to its original configuration, including its bronze railings. Gold leaf will be reapplied to the Corinthian columns' capitals.
The design team plans to install "high-end" lighting to showcase the building's historical features and a sophisticated sound system for the proposed stage and dance areas. The bank vault will become a VIP lounge. Swing and Latin dance lessons will be offered, and the club will promote jazz nights and music on weekends by well-known disc jockeys.
Piscatelli said he plans to complete his acquisition next month and start work shortly after that so that the club can open by late fall. He said he expects it to operate Wednesdays through Sundays, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. weeknights and with longer hours on weekends.
Although the building has no parking on the premises, Piscatelli said patrons will be able to park on streets or in nearby garages, which have more than 3,000 parking spaces within easy walking distance. Valet parking will be available.
Montgomery Ward building sale becomes final today
The previously announced sale of the former Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog building at 1000 S. Monroe St. becomes final today. The new owners, a development group headed by Samuel Himmelrich Jr. and David Tufaro, plan to convert the property to a $75 million business and technology park with room for more than 5,000 employees.
Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation voted this week to nominate the 1920s landmark for listing on the National Register of Historic Places so that the developers can qualify for tax credits for historic preservation.
Other buildings that CHAP nominated for listing on the National Register include the former Eastern High School at 1101 E. 33rd St., which Dome Corp. is renovating, and five "alley houses" in the 900 block of Lemmon St., which are being restored by Railroad Historical District Corp.