Backers hope preservation effort will fly


The hulking structure is more than six decades old, and it's on a valuable parcel of land that's about to go on the auction block.

But Baltimore County officials and community leaders see the old airplane factory now known as the Middle River Depot as an architectural jewel and a statement of the area's heritage, and they want it to survive the sale.

The building, once the plant where Glenn L. Martin Co. manufactured the B-26 "Marauder" bomber during World War II, has been in recent decades a federal government repository for tons of pamphlets, manuals and records.

It's at the foot of a soon-to-be-completed highway envisioned as the gateway to eastern Baltimore County's changing waterfront, and the U.S. General Services Administration is planning to sell the building and the 50 choice acres on which it sits to the highest bidder by summer's end.

Officials, who have been pitching the sale of the depot nationally at conventions and in other venues, describe a keen interest in the property among local and out-of-town developers.

David S. Iannucci, executive director of the county Department of Economic Development, said the historical link could help support businesses such as a major theme restaurant.

"There really is interest in this property all over the place," Iannucci said.

Officials and leaders of the community-based Essex-Middle River Renaissance Corp. want a multi-use development to sprout from the depot property.

Some of the possibilities include sports facilities, such as an indoor soccer field or swimming pool, a small number of townhouses and condos, a branch for a four-year college, an aviation museum and retail shops.

Another idea for the area involves upgrading the MARC station on Eastern Boulevard, now just a mobile trailer and parking lot. Combined with the property's proximity to Martin State Airport and Interstate 95, the spot would be a significant transportation terminus attractive to both tourists and business interests, advocates say.

A 1,000-acre office and industrial park called Crossroads@95 is planned for Route 43, expected to connect White Marsh and Eastern Boulevard early next year. Officials foresee new pharmaceutical and technology firms along the highway creating thousands of jobs.

But neighbors worry that because the depot property is zoned for heavy manufacturing, a developer could demolish the old airplane plant and build a factory or bland distribution center.

"We are all very excited about the future there," said Jackie Nickel, a board member of the Essex-Middle River Renaissance Corp. "But somebody could build a soap factory there, and there isn't anything we could do about it."

While pushing for mixed-use development, community leaders have been busy presenting ideas to the county and federal governments.

"I would love to see a classy neon sign atop the depot building welcoming one and all as they come through the gateway of a new Route 43, to a historic place where important aircraft were built, where there is a tradition, a pride," said Shawn Meyer, president of the renaissance group.

This month, the Baltimore County Council will vote on a proposal to designate the site a Renaissance Opportunity District, further involving area residents in planning the future of the depot tract. The U.S. General Services Administration plans to take potential buyers on a tour of the property Tuesday.

"Interest in the community and market is building," Gary M. Mote, a GSA spokesman in Atlanta, said in an e-mail.

The building attracting so much attention is a 1.9 million-square-foot structure designed by Albert Kahn, a leading industrial architect of the 20th century.

An archivist at the Glenn L. Martin Aviation Museum, a Loyola College history professor and the head of the international architectural firm Albert Kahn Associates Inc. agree that the old plant is the work of a noted master.

To accommodate large aircraft, Kahn designed the plant with support columns close to the walls and with trusses similar to those used in bridges to support the roof. His use of natural light - there are large window boxes on the roof and hundreds of glass panels high on the building's walls - helped defense craftsmen in a building that was camouflaged against feared air attacks by Germany.

Kahn was renowned as the architect of America's first auto plants in Detroit. He also designed other wartime aviation factories, along with hospitals, banks, temples, libraries and mansions.

Kahn's wartime aviation plants, often built with uncanny speed, became known as his "Arsenal of Democracy."

"The structure in Middle River represents a special point in time," said Stephen Q. Whitney, president and CEO of Detroit-based Albert Kahn Associates. "It is a work of sustainability that could carry the building's use though the next century. ... It is a treasure that should be saved."

In 1939, Whitney said, Kahn received a request from aviation pioneer Martin for a second building of 440,000 square feet to be built in three months.

Within two days, Whitney said, Kahn and his associates placed contracts for steel and concrete. The building, on a nearby parcel, was completed within 77 days.

"Did the architecture suffer?" Whitney said. "It has been quoted as 'one of Kahn's finest designs.'"

The larger Middle River plant, owned by the U.S. General Services Administration since the early 1960s, serves as a repository for a mind-numbing amount of stored paperwork, manuals and military publications.

Loyola history professor Jack Breihan, a specialist on how World War II shaped America's suburban frontiers, says the building should be preserved because it is a "masterwork of a great architect."

Nickel, the renaissance board member, said one idea that has gained momentum is a dining spot with an aviation theme.

"Diners could listen to live radio traffic from the [Martin State Airport] tower across the street," Nickel said.

"Airplanes were Middle River, that's how we went from nothing but farms to a bustling city of 50,000 wartime workers.

"We should not discard that legacy," she said.

A caption accompanying a Maryland section article yesterday about the Glenn L. Martin aircraft factory in Middle River implies that the planes in the photo are B-26 "Marauders." The planes in the photograph are actually B-57A Canberra bombers, which were built by Martin in the mid-1950s. Also, a caption with a second photograph did not fully identify the building in that picture. It is the B Building.The Sun regrets the errors.
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