A vibrant blend of old and new

The Baltimore Sun

The paint was wet on the studio walls in the old Emerson Drug Co.'s Bromo Seltzer tower this week when I dropped by on a tour of a rapidly changing part of Baltimore's downtown.

In the final days of the summer of 2007, I experienced the tremendous energy in the general neighborhood of the Hippodrome, the University of Maryland and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

The Bromo Tower, a Baltimore landmark at Lombard and Eutaw, was just one of the several addresses I've known all my life that are now in the process of transformation. I've always been a fan of old clocks and curious mechanical objects, so this building is a winner. But who knew that its commercial interior remains so well-preserved?

The elevators still have their wonderful bronze floor indicators and moving hands (no digital here), and the old tower staircase looks like something out of a Dashiell Hammett mystery. The studios are surprisingly small, but I'll wager there will be lines of those who want to get one. The natural lighting and views of Baltimore are staggering.

The technicians repairing the huge old clockwork have a daunting assignment. While the north-, west- and east-facing dials were all pretty accurate, the south one - the one that's visible from Oriole Park - was about 15 minutes slow.

Two vintage neighboring structures also made a graceful transformation over the warm months. At Eutaw and Baltimore, the high-style, Victorian-era Abell Building - where I once watched men's neckties being made when this was the city's garment district - is now getting ready for tenants. It is a great example of a building that escaped the Baltimore Fire of 1904 - even though the conflagration started not too far away. I suspected that pre-fire downtown Baltimore looked a lot like five dozen more Abell Buildings scatted on every other corner.

The other big surprise was the restoration of a handsome structure with a cast-iron facade a block west of 1st Mariner Arena. This structure is in the 300 block of W. Baltimore St., and I knew it for years as the Trading Post - a kind of wholesale variety store. Today, it's a beauty, a composition of fine windows separated by columns topped by Corinthian capitals. It also survived the 1904 fire.

The Bromo, Abell and Trading Post are all venerable relics where care has been taken to usher them into the 21st century, but the bigger deal is the concentration of major new construction.

It's taken nearly three decades for the vacant lot north of Camden Station to get a building, the new Convention Center hotel. It's hard to predict how it's going to look, but it's great to see the blocks fill up with real city buildings once again. There's nothing worse than vacant asphalt at a site once so gainfully employed. Another UM giant structure is under way at Paca and Lombard.

I'm a big fan of the looks of The Zenith, the curving apartment tower that has also taken shape along Pratt Street. A fine-looking apartment like this broadcasts a message - that downtown Baltimore is a worthy place to live. Baltimore doesn't have many sleek, fun, modernist buildings like this. I get a kick out of its little protruding balconies - just the spot for a cocktail party as the autumn sun sets.


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