Designer believed


One of Baltimore's tallest buildings bears a black and white sign above its lobby that features Mayor Martin O'Malley's favorite message for the city: BELIEVE.

But there was a time when the 40-story building, the former USF&G; Corp. headquarters, didn't need a sign to send that message.

In 1968, when USF&G; pledged to build a new headquarters near Baltimore's Inner Harbor, it was the first company to make that commitment since then-Mayor Theodore McKeldin launched an effort to rejuvenate the waterfront five years earlier.

The company followed through on its pledge despite riots that drove many residents and businesses from the city. Its 529-foot-tall headquarters, completed six years later, was a symbol of faith in downtown Baltimore at a time when few others were showing any.

Its rapid construction in the early 1970s - rising a story a day at one point - provided tangible evidence that the city's grand plans for the Inner Harbor could be realized.

"It made believers out of a lot of people who didn't think the Inner Harbor plan would go anywhere," said Martin Millspaugh, former president and chief executive officer of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management Inc., now the Baltimore Development Corp.

This enduring symbol of belief in Baltimore is one of several city buildings designed by Vlastimil Koubek, a Washington-based architect who died of cancer Feb. 15 at his home in Arlington, Va. He was 75.

In a 1995 interview, Koubek said he set out to create a tower that would be a source of pride to the company's employees as well as to the city itself.

"USF&G; said, 'We want a signature building that will be recognized around the world as our home offices in Baltimore, so magnificent that even our agencies in Australia will know it when they see it,'" he recalled.

Last week, Koubek was praised by colleagues and friends as the right architect for a commission that turned out to be so critical to reshaping Baltimore's skyline - and image.

"Vlastimil Koubek was a profilic classic modernist, an architect's architect," said Richard Burns, a principal of Design Collective Inc. "In my opinion, his USF&G; tower, now Legg Mason, is one of the best if not the best office buildings in downtown Baltimore. It is simple, direct and honest, just like Vlastimil."

"You wouldn't think of him as starting a trend or breaking new ground in design," Millspaugh said. "His forte was doing quality buildings on time and on budget. The USF&G; building was a perfect example of a quality building for its time - and it still is."

The Legg Mason tower is one of more than 100 buildings that Koubek designed during a career that lasted from the 1950s to the present.

His other Baltimore buildings include the 26-story Central Savings Bank building downtown, the Horizon House apartments near Mount Vernon, and the garage at 414 Water St. Along with Design Collective, he was part of the team that designed the high-rise condominium tower at 100 HarborView Drive. Before stadiums rose in Camden Yards, he designed a master plan for the area that called for the preservation of historic Camden Station and the long B & O warehouse.

Born and educated in Czechoslovakia, Koubek came to the United States in 1952. After working for others for five years, he established his own office in 1957. Since then, he had been responsible for the design of office buildings, hotels and institutitional structures representing a combined investment of more than $2 billion

In 1985, Washingtonian magazine named him one of 20 Washingtonians "who in the past 20 years had the greatest impact on the way we live and who forever altered the look of Washington."

"He was good," said Oliver T. Carr, chairman emeritus of CarrAmerica, a real estate development firm that hired Koubek for many of its projects. "He was different from so many architects of that time. His buildings had clean architectural lines, and yet they were functional and practical and offered good work space. For that period of time, he was a perfect fit."

Peggy Koubek, the architect's wife of 19 years, said a memorial service for her husband will be held in several weeks, but arrangements have not been set. Her husband was a strong believer in Baltimore, she added.

"Vlasta and I were both very fond of Baltimore, and he was very proud of the work he had done in the city," she said.

USF&G;'s leaders did not originally want to build their tower on the block bounded by Pratt, Charles, Lombard and Light streets, where it stands.

They originally wanted to build it one block closer to the waterfront, where the IBM building later rose. But city officials said that block was reserved for a mid-rise building.

"We had to tell them that our plan called for a frame of buildings around the harbor and there couldn't be a tower there," Millspaugh said. "They thought about it and decided to move their building" one block west.

Koubek designed a tall, slender building made with the finest finishes, including Spanish pink granite on the exterior and rosewood and English brown oak inside. Four levels of parking were buried underground to preserve the tower's slender proportions. A Henry Moore sculpture was commissioned for the base, but later had to be moved indoors.

Koubek's building was designed with a concrete core that contained the elevators and lavatories, and two paired columns at each of the four corners. Each floor was otherwise column-free.

Ground was broken in June 1970. Contractors built the 36-story-tall core in just six weeks. The frame was topped out in April 1971 and the building opened in 1974.

Today, Koubek's building is considered as critical to the success of the 250-acre Inner Harbor renewal area as was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's office tower at 1 N. Charles St. to the 33-acre Charles Center renewal area.

From an urban design point of view, "it's a linchpin for the Inner Harbor," said David Wallace, former partner of Wallace Roberts and Todd, the Philadelphia-based firm that designed the master plan for the Inner Harbor. "If you look at it from a boat, it's a punctuation point at one corner of the Inner Harbor, signifying where the central business district meets the waterfront."

The harbor's urban design guidelines dictated that buildings framing the west and north shores have a continuous cornice line, Wallace said.

"This is the point where they come together, the confluence of the two sides," he said. "As architecture, it's one of the more handsome buildings in the Inner Harbor. As a piece of urban design ... it's spectacular."

Architects chosen

Two local architects have been hired to design the commercial and residential development that the Johns Hopkins University plans to build on the north side of 33rd Street between Charles and St. Paul streets in Charles Village.

Ayers Saint Gross and Design Collective have been hired to create a mixed-use development that will include a bookstore for the campus and other retailers, parking and housing for students. Construction is tentatively expected to begin in 2004 and be complete by mid-2005.

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