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City panel supports plan to convert USF&G; building


Plans to save the long-vacant USF&G; Corp. building by converting it into a hotel for Hampton Inn & Suites won initial support yesterday from the city's Design Advisory Panel.

The group also looked favorably on the latest revisions to the 225-room luxury Ritz-Carlton hotel planned for Federal Hill, with a few more suggestions on design.

The Hampton Inn project calls for adding three stories on top of the former USF&G; building, to create a total of 175 suites in the historic building, which has been empty for at least 15 years. Those levels, to be done in contemporary style, will be recessed and therefore not visible from the street.

"We're delighted to see the building saved," said M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corporation. "This is a building that other developers had looked at and couldn't decide how to save. ... If we lost this building, it would be a great architectural loss for Redwood Street."

Developers hope to break ground on the $25 million project in the 100 block of E. Redwood St. on Dec. 15 and have the hotel open by Nov. 1 next year. The building was built right after the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, officials said.

The Maryland Historical Trust has approved the initial application necessary to obtain historic tax credit. It is unclear how much that credit would be.

"We are maintaining all the character of the old structure," said Juan Gruner, director of Bethesda-based AGG International, the architects for the project. "We are just rejuvenating it as it is."

The project will include cleaning the stone, repainting windows, painting the facades on Mercer and Grant streets and installing new elevators, Gruner said.

Design panel members voiced concern about the view of the new three-story structure from surrounding buildings. They suggested that, through design and color of materials used, the structure be made to blend in as much as possible.

Architects are scheduled to meet with the panel next month to show samples of construction materials.

Taking another look at the Ritz-Carlton, design panel members were happier but still not satisfied with the latest version of the project now estimated to cost more than $140 million.

The main substantive change was moving the residential units together and locating the hotel section by the water - a proposal that the panel liked.

Last month the group had asked project designers to make the project "less French," to incorporate more of the architectural feel of Baltimore in the facades of the building. The proposed changes met with mixed success.

"I don't think that the elevations rise to the level of quality of the French treatment," said Melvin Mitchell, a panel member and director of the Institute of Architecture & Planning at Morgan State University. "That approach was much more appealing than this melange of bits and pieces of Baltimore architecture. The French treatment was much more consistent."

The group's concerns centered around the facades of the taller buildings within the project, which feature three clearly separate levels fitted with a pediment atop large columns. The suggestion was once again to simplify.

"It looks like a pediment on stilts the way you've got it now," said Phoebe Stanton, a panel member. "It's wrong. Why do you need those?"

Developers are to return to the design panel in two weeks with revisions.

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