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RESTORATION BRINGS GLOW BACK TO BGE AND DOWNTOWN

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Lexington Street construction fences are now down at Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s former headquarters. After months of renovation, one of downtown's most dignified office buildings (1916) has been reinvented by being made into apartments. I can't think of a better boost to this downtown Baltimore neighborhood.

I pushed through the big revolving doors yesterday and found the lobby looking the best it's appeared in my memory. This preservation-driven rehab has exposed limestone walls hidden by unfortunate attempts at modernization in the groovy 1960s. Not everything is World War I-era here: The lobby is clean and fresh, with a honey wood tone lobby reception desk and new light fixtures.

On the outside, I couldn't help admiring the care and attention being given to the beautiful cast-iron window frames lavishly embossed with graceful Florentine effects and raised crests. These windows were once important sales tools when the utility was in the business of selling radios, refrigerators, stoves and washers. Restorers were putting the finishing touches of bronze and gold along the Liberty Street windows yesterday morning.

The massive hanging entry lantern looks as fine as the day architects Parker Thomas and Rice designed it.

Being a fan of the old city - the so-called Downtown Westside - with its often-unruly assemblage of shoe stores, five-and-dimes, variety shops and drug chains, it's fascinating to watch this area march through its latest transformation. Not so far away, I observed the refreshed Basilica of the Assumption as I rode down the hill toward the BGE building. The pieces of the city renewal are fitting together nicely, even if it's taken so many years for this part of Baltimore to get a cleanup.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, large sections of this part of Baltimore got bulldozed and ripped apart for the urban renewal effort known as the Charles Center. We didn't have good restoration technology then and didn't think much of places such as the old Metropolitan Savings Bank, Century and Valencia theaters, Miller Bros. Restaurant and the Sun building. So the city fathers had them torn down. Today the preservationists would put up a fight, for good reason.

There are many ways to judge a neighborhood, and one of them is the presence and success of its local market-grocery store. One of the most pleasant surprises of this past year was the success of the Super Fresh market at Charles and Saratoga - around the corner from BGE. I've become a fan of its quirky aisles and untraditional layout. I also love seeing the foot traffic it's drawn to this corner. It seems to be saying that people are embracing the idea of living in the old commercial heart of downtown Baltimore, where business people traditionally had their offices.

If I show a little partiality for the old BGE building, maybe it's because my grandfather, E.J. Monaghan, a Pennsylvania Water and Power engineer, had an office on an upper floor. On the upcoming renovation schedule is the building where my great-grandfather, William Stewart, had his professional digs. His was in the old Drovers and Mechanics Bank at Fayette and Eutaw, just up the street from the Hippodrome and across from Maggie Moore's Irish Pub. Grandpop Stewart's big corner office is slated to become a hotel room.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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