Recreation Pier has a pedigree well connected to Baltimore's past

A few years ago I suggested that while others had tried to redevelop and preserve Recreation Pier in Fells Point, Under Armour's Kevin Plank held a "golden charm" for this costly endeavor. (After all, anything built over the water can't be cheap.)

As I walked through the venerable pier this week — now named the Sagamore Pendry Baltimore hotel — I observed the fruit of that investment.

Design ingenuity has tapped every asset this gorgeous 1914 structure held. Designer Patrick Sutton and builder Whiting Turner worked with Pendry Hotels and Montage Resorts to give Baltimore a knockout amenity.

On a chilly afternoon I saw the infinity pool overlooking the harbor and the Locust Point shoreline. Please reserve me a deck chair.

The pier headhouse opened in 1914 to honor Baltimore's defense against the attempted British invasion of 1814. That event is commemorated in the Sagamore Pendry with a soaring new mural over a grand staircase — a staircase once climbed by the children of Southeast Baltimore as they ran to a rooftop asphalt playground with a great view of the harbor.

That rooftop space was used in 1969 when Vagabond Players mounted Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie" there, under the stars. An actual Baker-Whiteley tugboat was the backdrop.

Children using the Rec Pier passed what The Sun once described as an "assembly room," a special chamber with high ceilings that's now the hotel's ballroom. Only in Baltimore would we spend money on such a fabulous room, not use it very well for 100 years, then rediscover it.

When constructed, this building combined all sorts of uses. It was a terminus for the harbor ferry from Locust Point; the harbor master had an office here. In later years, it was the headquarters for a small commercial radio station that served the port of Baltimore.

And most famously, Recreation Pier was used in the filming of the 1990s television series "Homicide: Life on the Street."

As I explored the building this week, I passed the large central restaurant constructed at ground level within its interior arch — it opens Monday with breakfast. Around a corner, I encountered the original 1914 bronze plaque crediting construction of the building to the City Harbor Board and Mayor James H. Preston.

Preston had a taste for promoting, upgrading and beautifying Baltimore — and spent municipal dollars for the Fallsway, stone walks and limestone balustrades for Mount Vernon Place and the creation of Preston Gardens along St. Paul Place.

Another name on the plaque is Theodore Wells Pietsch, who came to Baltimore from Chicago to help rebuild the city after the 1904 fire. Pietsch may be little-known today, but his public buildings remain heavily used here.

He created the parish house and bell tower at Zion Lutheran Church at City Hall Plaza, and Ss. Philip and James Roman Catholic Church in Charles Village, as well as what is now the Sotta Sopra Restaurant at Charles and Mulberry.

The soaring windows at Sagamore Pendry, Sotta Sopra and the Catholic church all bear Pietsch's signature style, and his design handiwork in the Sagamore Pendry hotel remains as fresh as it was more than a decade ago.

His structural engineers supplied massive steel-plate beams for the portion of the pier now serving as the hotel.

Sutton, the designer behind renovated structure, has exposed these powerful beams — they resemble structural elements of a massive ship or the underside of an elevated railway — in dramatic fashion. They soar over a linear garden atrium that stretches from the rear of the restaurant along the pier to its end at the harbor.

As I left Sagamore Pendry, I glanced across Thames Street and spotted another historic building — a commercial structure newly named to honor Lucretia "Lou" Fisher.

Fisher was a principal player in 1967 in the successful fight to save Fells Point and much of the Baltimore harbor shore from an interstate highway.

We've learned amazing lessons about preservation in the intervening five decades. And we're seeing some of the benefits today.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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