Ritz goes back to the drawing board

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Michael Graves is one of America's most prolific designers, with projects ranging from the Walt Disney Corp. headquarters in California to clocks and tea kettles.

For more than a year, Graves and others in his Princeton-based firm, Michael Graves & Associates, have been working on a $100 million Ritz-Carlton hotel and condominium complex overlooking Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

But if Baltimoreans want to see his work anytime soon, they'll either have to visit another city or drop in on a local Target store. Graves has been replaced as the project's design architect.

Dissatisfied with preliminary plans for the building yet anxious to move ahead with construction, the developers have brought in a design team headed by Paul Marks and Mark Heckman of Marks, Thomas and Associates in Baltimore, and John Nichols and Anne Jackaway of Nichols, Brosch, Sandoval and Associates (NBS) in Coral Gables, Fla., a firm that specializes in upscale hotels and already has designed seven for Ritz-Carlton,

With the change in architects, Graves joins a slew of A-list architects who have begun work on key Baltimore projects only to be replaced before construction starts. It includes Americans Philip Johnson and Kevin Roche, whose firms designed downtown office towers, and British architect Richard Rogers, the original designer of Columbus Center on Pier 5.

The appointment of new architects for the 250-room Ritz-Carlton Inner Harbor (and the accompanying 75 to 100 Residences at the Ritz-Carlton) is also an occasion for fresh thinking about the design principles that make Baltimore's Inner Harbor so popular, and how those positive attributes can be extended to the harbor's south shore.

Mission impossible?

When he was commissioned in 1998 to design a Ritz-Carlton for Baltimore, Graves was given a seemingly impossible assignment -- to fit a hotel and condominium development at the foot of Federal Hill without blocking views to and from the hill itself.

The site is the "Propeller Yard" at the north end of the former Bethlehem Steel Corp. Key Highway shipyard, a 6.2-acre parcel now occupied by a nondescript brick warehouse. Graves early on suggested that a slender tower may be the best way to preserve views, but his proposal was shot down by residents of the nearby Federal Hill neighborhood for violating a 71-foot height limit.

Graves' office also proposed a sprawling, six-story building with several "fingers" extending into the harbor, but the guest-room wings looked more like airplane hangars than part of an upscale hotel, and they still would have blocked views of the water from Federal Hill. Their bowed roofline forms gave the project an ungainly profile and a strangely industrial look. They had none of the trademark Gravesian whimsy.

In May the company developing the Ritz-Carlton project, L. I. Square Corp. of New York and Baltimore, hired Edward Giannasca II as its new president and chief executive. Previously a vice president with HV Development and Contracting Co., Giannasca replaced developer Neil Fisher, who had hired Graves. One of Giannasca's first moves was to bring in the new architects. "I was not comfortable with the way the team was going," Giannasca said last week. "The architecture was not there. It was somewhat boring, in my opinion. ... It just didn't feel like a Ritz."

Marks, Thomas will be the architect of record, a role it played with the new Lutheran Center at 700 Light Street. Paul Marks is a Federal Hill resident who has extensive experience with high-end, multifamily housing and is well acquainted with the urban design issues pertaining to the Ritz- Carlton. NBS will be the design architect, with John Nichols as principal in charge and Anne Jackaway as project manager for that firm.

Founded in 1967, NBS has designed more than 100 hotels and resorts for clients such as Marriott, Loews, Hilton and Hyatt. Their Ritz-Carltons are in Coconut Grove, Naples and Miami, Fla.; St. Thomas, V. I.; and San Juan, P. R., among other locations.

Baltimore has not always gotten the best work out of big-name, out-of-town "star-chitects." They have been known to walk off with plum commissions and then let others in the office oversee the work, maintaining little involvement with the client or the community. The result can be worse than if the client had hired an eager local firm that gave the project its full attention.

Graves is one of America's most ubiquitous architects -- always jetting around the world, lecturing, schmoozing, promoting his designs and clients. His buildings range from corporate towers such as the Humana headquarters in Louisville, Ky., to the restored Washington Monument in the nation's capital.

To his knowledge, Giannasca said, Graves came to Baltimore only once in connection with the Ritz-Carlton project, and that was for a presentation to the Design Advisory Panel, followed by a lecture at the American Visionary Art Museum. For the most part, he said, the project was headed by others in Graves' office, including principal Thomas Rowe.

"That was part of the problem," Giannasca said. "These projects tend to be only as good as the team that works on them. It didn't seem to have the attention from Michael and the principals that it needed to have."

In addition, he said, the designers working on the project may have been pointed in the wrong direction by the local design review panel, which pushed them to take a modern approach when perhaps the Ritz needed a more traditional character.

The new team has been encouraged to start over and create a building that reflects the traditions of elegant, grand hotels.

"They're coming in with a completely different concept and, more importantly, a fresh set of eyes," Giannasca said. "It's a new day for the project. ... I think we've taken the right approach."

Rowe, from Graves' office, said he was "hugely disappointed" with the decision. "It happens. We're big boys," he said. "But with a site like this, you can't help but be disappointed. We put a lot of time into this."

Jackaway of NBS, meanwhile, said she is excited about the Baltimore commission.

"It's one of the best sites I've seen in a long, long time," she said. "We've done a lot of projects on beaches with palm trees. But there's something that's very appealing about the waterfront location, with the city skyline on the opposite side of the harbor. It's a challenging site, and it's going to take some bold strokes to put all these pieces together. But there's no reason it can't be done."

Earlier designs

The project has changed slightly in that the program now calls for about 200,000 square feet of space for residences, up from 160,000; elimination of a proposed office tower; and more than 500 underground parking spaces, up from 350.

To help the new architects, Giannasca has shared with them earlier design studies of the site, including a city Planning Department analysis of Key Highway. Another document that they are likely to find useful is a 1984 design study that was completed by Cho, Wilks and Benn Architects of Baltimore for Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management Inc., the downtown development agency when William Donald Schaefer was mayor.

At the time, Charles Center chief executive Martin Millspaugh anticipated that the Propeller Yard would be redeveloped someday -- most likely with a hotel -- and wanted to be ready with design standards and controls to guide the architects. So he asked architect Barbara Wilks, then a partner of the firm, to recommend the best way to built a 250-room hotel on the site.

"The Propeller Yard was already the choice site remaining in the Inner Harbor when I was winding up my watch at Charles Center-Inner Harbor in 1985, so I made it my business to study the problem of designing an outstanding hotel project that would also pass muster with the people guarding the view from Federal Hill," Millspaugh said.

Millspaugh's assignment to Wilks demonstrates the sort of proactive stance that Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management took during the Schaefer era, and it turned out to be prescient. The imaginary hotel Millspaugh and Wilks contemplated was remarkably similar in size to the project L. I. Square has on the drawing board today.

Wilks proposed a variegated building whose forms step down in height from the Key Highway side to the water's edge. The building hugs the bend of the roadway and embraces the harbor. A generous swath of land was reserved along the water's edge for a public promenade. The architectural imagery is traditional, rather than modern.

In Wilks' design, three tower elements are taller than the 71-foot height limit that now governs the site, and would require a waiver from the city. But Millspaugh, now vice chairman of Enterprise Real Estate Services Inc. in Columbia, said he believes that strict adherence to the height limit is not as critical as designing an attractive building and maintaining views through to the water.

"If the image of the hotel is just plain attractive for the public to look at, the public will want it approved, and the issue of the height limit at elevation 71 will be irrelevant," Millspaugh said.

To help the project gain public support, Millspaugh suggested adopting a stylistic treatment that has worked to charm people in the past, such as the French chateau architecture of the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego or the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec.

"I know that most first-rank architects don't want to use proven images in place of their own signature creations," he said. "But in this case, the completion of the whole Inner Harbor circle is at stake. A proven traditional -- even romantic -- design can make people want to see that building in that location, instead of thinking of it as a blockage in front of Federal Hill."

Does Baltimore lose anything by the absence of Michael Graves? Possibly. A Ritz-Carlton designed by Graves could have been an attraction in itself. But brand-name architecture is not enough for a site as prominent and complex as this. No building will succeed on the Propeller Yard unless the designers find a way to make it coexist with Federal Hill.

The 1984 hotel study is comparable to the early study by Eric Moss, then an architecture student, that showed it was possible to put a baseball stadium in Camden Yards and still save the B & O Warehouse. Moss' these project for Syracuse University showed that it would be far better to keep the warehouse as a prominent feature of the ballpark than to obscure it or wipe it away. The rest is baseball history.

In this case, Federal Hill and the Ritz-Carlton need to work as one composition, rather than two objects fighting each other. Graves' office could never quite make that happen. The Cho, Wilks and Benn study shows it can be done. Now it's up to Marks, Thomas and NBS to take it to the next level.

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