Baltimore's 1st skyscraper changes hands


The Bank of America building, Baltimore's first skyscraper and an art deco icon downtown, has been sold to a private Rockville company, the buyer confirmed yesterday.

The 34-story gold-crowned tower at 10 Light St. opened in 1929 just before the stock market crash ended the boom of the 1920s and heralded the Great Depression. It was the city's tallest building for 44 years, until the Legg Mason tower edged it out by 20 feet.

The Nellis Corp., which invests in commercial properties across the country, bought the land and building from New York-based Equitable Life Assurance Society for an undisclosed sum.

According to state land records, Equitable had owned the building since 1955. No previous owners or sale prices were recorded. The land and building are now assessed at $19.65 million.

Randall Levitt, Nellis' president, said the company is "delighted to be associated with such a unique asset."

While the building is no longer at the epicenter of downtown's financial district, the buyer as well as local historians consider it one of the grandest of Baltimore's office towers. It is still among the largest in the city.

The exterior is red brick and limestone. The top is 23-karat gold leaf. Built by the J. Henry Miller Co., its lobby has 45-foot elaborately carved wood ceilings, inlaid mosaic floors, and huge Greco-Roman style columns. Nellis said Maryland attributes include exterior carvings around the doors depicting the Great Fire of 1904 and the penning of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Bronze window grates are adorned with crabs.

The building is a holdover from the era when the area around Light and Redwood streets was known as the Wall Street of the South. From its windows, tenants have witnessed sweeping change as the city's financial district shifted to the modern offices that now ring the Inner Harbor and claim as tenants many of the city's most prestigious companies. Now, its occupants look out across Light Street and see two fenced-off pits, cleared of their structures beginning three years ago for developments that are stalled.

Civic leader Walter Sondheim Jr., who was 21 when the building opened, said he remembered it as "an exceptional thing in Baltimore. There was no building like it. There's been no building since like it. People admired it tremendously."

Sondheim said he worked on the top floors for a time early in World War II.

Bank of America holds a master lease on the building, which allows the Charlotte, N.C.-based bank to operate it as if it owns it. The bank, which occupies much of the 362,000 square feet of office space, sublets and collects rent from other tenants. It pays one fee to the building's owner. Nellis will not control the building until 2020, when the master lease expires.

Miles & Stockbridge, a regional law firm, is the next-largest tenant. The building is nearly full.

That probably helped sell the building. During the lackluster economy, vacancies in some downtown buildings have inched up while rents have dipped. Real estate brokers say that makes office buildings unappealing targets for acquisition. Major downtown office buildings have not changed hands for several years. One of the last was 250 W. Pratt, which sold in 1998.

The fortunes of the Bank of America building have, in some cases, been better than those of its tenants. The building has changed names a number of times over its 73 years as local companies vanished.

The building was originally called the Baltimore Trust Building, but that bank did not survive the Depression. The building has also been called the O'Sullivan Building and the Mathieson Building, depending on the largest tenant of the day.

It became the headquarters of Maryland National Bank in 1962. But the bank's holding company, expansion-minded MNC Financial Inc., began to run into trouble in the early 1990s. After nearly failing, it was taken over by NationsBank Corp. in 1993.

That year, about $900,000 in renovations began, including the removal of the prominent Maryland National "MN" logo that also told the weather by changing colors.

Terri Bolling, a Bank of America spokeswoman, said the company has no plans for change.

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