It's a giant slab of mud-colored concrete jutting nearly 300 feet into the sky at the edge of a peninsula, an old, abandoned plant that once stored and weighed tons of grain hauled in by rail.
Or, as architect Christopher Pfaeffle sees the former Archer Daniels Midland grain elevator in Locust Point - with a few modifications - it's the perfect place to watch the sun set from the living room of your penthouse.
Pfaeffle's firm has taken on the task of turning an 83-year-old grain elevator into sleek, upscale condos. Pfaeffle said he immediately saw potential in the slenderness and elegance not typically found in relics of the waterfront's fading industrial past.
"I thought it would be cool to live here," said Pfaeffle, a principal and founder of Baltimore-based firm Parameter Inc. "This would have great views of the water."
He and his client, developer Patrick Turner, who bought the grain elevator from ADM in 2003 for $6.5 million, envision modern lofts in the sky for the ultra hip. Residents, they believe, will pay top dollar for cutting-edge design and amenities, huge windows, soaring ceilings, exposed concrete columns and one of the most unique addresses in the city.
But first, architects would have to figure out how to remove five miles of rubber conveyer belts and 5 million plastic cups used to move grain. They'd have to figure out if they could cut apartments into the square, concrete storage bins that filled about a third of the building's height and how to work around those bins to fit in stairs and elevators in spots that would be practical for residents.
Only one such conversion - of a Quaker Oats Co. structure in Akron, Ohio, into a hotel - has been done. It was easy to see why. Most abandoned grain elevators sit next to railroad tracks in industrial areas. The developer of the Crowne Plaza Hotel at Quaker Square in Akron built round guest rooms in the silos and carved windows in the thick concrete.
But in the end, that developer told Turner, the project had been a big, costly pain.
Still, the Locust Point property has a lot going for it, Pfaeffle said. It abuts a residential neighborhood and offers access to highways and downtown Baltimore, and has stunning harbor and skyline views.
It's on a gentrifying waterfront, where gritty industrial sites from Canton to Locust Point are giving way to glitzy condos and apartments.
Since Silo Point used to be a food plant, there were no environmental hazards to clean up. And the original working drawings of the plant had remained on site, showing that the building could handle the load of the new apartments.
But the road map from grain elevator to condos was hardly clear-cut or free of obstacles.
The difficulty in most conversions comes in trying to match a new use with an old building and adapting the building to meet modern housing codes, said Adam Blumenthal, executive director of the Baltimore Architecture Foundation. That becomes even more of a challenge when converting a single-function building .
"It's not like the Hippodrome or Clipper Mill or the Can Co.; it's a very industrial building built to do one specific job," Blumenthal said. "Part of what makes this project so unique is the building is so inflexible. An architecture firm doesn't have experience doing this. Only one or two of these come along in a career."
From the start, Silo Point's designers strove to retain a symbol of the city's industrial past while making it habitable, to create an upscale and contemporary look without wiping out all remnants of the plant's former use.
The more he learned about how the 1923-era grain elevator had housed grain, Pfaeffle said, the more he became convinced it could house people.
Trains used to haul the grain directly to the 290-foot elevator, with its web of conveyor belts and bins and narrow catwalks. There, the grain was dumped. Rubber belts with plastic cups that scooped up the grain moved through vertical metal shafts to the top of the building, where the grain was weighed. Then it was stored in a separate building with cylindrical silos 112 feet tall.
"In a way, we'll be moving people and goods in the same way as the grain, in from the bottom, up on elevators and across glass bridges to the parking garage," Pfaeffle said.
A big question loomed about whether apartments could be carved into the 100-foot-deep concrete storage bins. These 60 bins, each 12 feet square, were made of poured concrete and supported the building.
"How do we put apartments or condos in these bins?" Pfaeffle said designers wondered. "One hundred feet equates to 10 floors, and that's a lot of potential real estate to not be using."
An early study looked at ways to cut holes in the bins. The sequencing of such a project would be crucial. Cutting holes in the bins, then installing floors would cause structural damage, while cutting holes in every other bin, and installing floors in that sequence would not.
After three months of working with structural engineers, the team determined the cost associated with using the bins would break the budget. They were forced to consider other options.
"As you're going through, you see signs you may not be able to do this. Still, you get into denial for a while," Pfaeffle said. "But ultimately we needed to go through the process and understand what was involved.
"Even though we emerged not doing that, we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt we couldn't do it."
It became clear that only through additional new construction could the tower fit enough apartments to make the project work financially.
"At that moment, we started talking about doing 'wrap' buildings," around the elevator building, Pfaeffle said.
Architects came up with a new plan to fit 24 stories into the tower above a soaring 27-foot-high lobby that would preserve the immense, octagonal concrete columns and a ceiling pockmarked with the pattern of openings from the original shafts. Forty six apartments will go in the tower, including 11 two-story penthouses.
Another 182 units, two-level and three-level townhouses and condominiums, will be built as part of a 13-story, concrete and glass low-rise that will wrap around 12 salvaged silos.
Developers had hoped to preserve most of the 187 original silos, removing only those in the center, leaving the outer row intact and building a parking garage inside. But because of structural problems, most were demolished. A 600-car garage will be in the center of the silo building, which will also house a health club.
While the architects were revising design plans, workers demolished the innards of the tower, including steel walkways and vertical shafts. Crews removed 400 tons of steel.
That work was highly specialized and dangerous.
"You have to find a specialized demolition contractor who understands how to take apart machinery," Pfaeffle said.
Workers used torches to cut open the ducts and remove them. But the rubber belts were highly flammable.
"The sparks from the torches would hit the belts, and so they had to continually hose them down while they were working and after they left," Pfaeffle said.
Turner said he expects to kick off sales early next year and hasn't set prices yet.
A successful conversion can help preserve a memory of the building's former use, said Ralph Bennett, a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.
"The disappearance of commerce from the south side of the harbor is something worth noting," he said. "If we're not careful, that legacy will disappear."
Pfaeffle said he hopes to show clear distinctions between the old and the new, the rough, industrial edges juxtaposed against crisp clean lines in buildings with metal exteriors. He intends subtle suggestions of how the building was used, exposing a bit of steel or concrete rather than plunking a piece of the old building in a lobby. Residents who cross a glass bridge to the garage will walk through an opening cut in the silos.
'Basilica to industrialism'
"This is a basilica to industrialism," Pfaeffle said. "I'd like people to walk into the lobby and get a sense of the vast industrial space. We're always trying to tell the story of what was there and what's not there."
On a late September afternoon, the day's construction on Silo Point was drawing to a close. Parameter partner Jim Smith watched from his office window overlooking the site as workers put in columns for the silo building. After Turner bought the plant, he moved his office into its former operations center on Beason Street, and Parameter moved there too.
Samples of exterior metal wall panels hung in Parameter's studio. The architects had narrowed dozens of shades of gray to three that will be used and were about to order custom color samples to show Turner.
In another office, bath fixtures lay scattered across tables and on the floor, fodder for thought as the team selects the interior package for the condos, from bath tile to kitchen sinks and refrigerators. The project requires hundreds of decisions, big and small. The color of the window caulking. The shade of the cherry wood accents in the lobby. The best type of bolt to hold the steel together. And on and on. In most cases, not only the architects but the construction manager and the owner must agree.
Once decisions are reached, the architects believe there's no looking back. Pfaeffle says he feels confident in how the design is adding up.
"We can never take decisions for granted," Smith said. "Every time you turned and studied a different part of the building, it warranted a little more thought and sensitivity to coax out what will be a remarkable building."