Carlos Preston Avery, a former CIA physicist who spent his spare time researching and writing about a designer of notable Baltimore landmarks, died of cancer Friday at Bedford Court assisted living in Silver Spring. He was 81 and had lived in Rockville.
A scientist who became fascinated by railroad station design and architecture, he devoted years of study to the prolific design team of E. Francis Baldwin and Josias Pennington, who created Baltimore landmarks as diverse as St. Leo’s Church in Little Italy and the Camden Yards warehouse.
Born in Hutchinson, Minnesota, he was the son of Carlos A. Avery, a teacher and newspaper owner, and his wife, Florence, a big band pianist and accordion player. He was a 1956 graduate of Glenwood High School and received three degrees, including a 1967 doctorate in physics, from the University of Minnesota.
At the school he met his future wife, Sara Lynn Torvik.
They settled in the Washington area, where Mr. Avery joined the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia.
“He spent his whole career at the agency in various roles, in the areas of Soviet science, technology, and strategic defense weapons, as well as Y2K and Iraq, marking 50 years of service in March of 2017,” said his daughter, Andrea Avery of Phoenix, Arizona.
“My father was not a man of casual hobbies,” she said. “In the 1970s, he became curious about the architecture of an old railroad station in Rockville, about 2 miles from our home. It was a curiosity that would bloom into a passionate, 20-year investigation of the Victorian railroad station architecture of Ephraim Francis Baldwin."
Mr. Avery spoke of his project in a 2001 Sun article: ″It’s all about digging for information. You crank through rolls of microfilm of old newspapers, visit sites and talk to people.”
Colleagues said Mr. Avery’s research was part of the creation of the Baltimore’s Historic Architects Roundtable, or, as he named it, the Dead Architects Society, a group devoted to architectural research.
“The movie Dead Poets Society was new and the name stuck,” said Walter Schamu, a friend who is an architect and a founder of the group. “Carlos loved railroads and so many of their buildings were designed by Baldwin. He was also amazed that so many of these structures survive.”
Courtney Wilson, former director of Baltimore and Ohio Museum in Southwest Baltimore, said, “Carlos wrote a phenomenal story about one of Baltimore’s greatest architects. Baldwin was the architect of record for the B&O Railroad for decades.”
Mr. Wilson also said, “There was a saying that you could walk from the Power Plant on Pratt Street to North Avenue and never lose sight of a Baldwin building."
Mr. Avery also described Baldwin’s structures not connected with the railroad — The Sun’s old Baltimore and Charles Street headquarters, sections of the Catholic University of America campus in Northeast Washington, D.C., a Howard Street Hutzler Brothers’ department store and the Maryland Club at 1 E. Eager St.
Mr. Avery’s book, “E. Francis Baldwin, Architect: The B&O, Baltimore, and Beyond,” was published in 2003 by the Baltimore Architecture Foundation.
A 2003 Sun article said: “This book is clearly a labor of love. The best parts, of course, are the minutiae ... the listings of buildings that once stood due south of Camden Station, a railroad village known as Bailey’s, now all gone. And what about the long-vanished Maryland & Pennsylvania station at North Avenue and Howard Street?”
At the time of his death, Mr. Carlos had completed a draft of his second book, about Maryland architect Frank E. Davis.
His daughter said her father had several hobbies. He took up running in his 50th year, the same year he grew a ponytail.
“He kept meticulous records — of his pace, his miles logged, his routes run,” she said. "The fascination with data and data-keeping was no surprise to his family, who knew that he had kept a ledger book recording all the tanks of gas he’d bought — and the price he’d paid, and where he’d bought it, and what the odometer said — for every car he’d owned since 1956.
“He tended to keep papers everywhere, including in our kitchen cabinets, where most people keep Tupperware or rubber bands,” his daughter said. “Everything was organized. It was not chaotic hoarding.”
"Simply put, my father loved information, particularly of the quantitative sort, and was legendary in his ability to collect, record and retrieve it,” she said.
He enjoyed the music of Vivaldi and Mahler and listened to Pink Floyd, Enya, and Mumford and Sons.
He solved math puzzles and once said in an email to his daughter, “I am always looking out for problems involving classic physics of structures, buoyancy, granular behavior, or geometry, trigonometry and or calculus."
He liked breakfast food for dinner, especially when traveling. And he was an efficient traveler who liked to “make good time.” Mr. Avery liked to be 15 minutes early for his appointments.
Mr. Wilson, the former B&O Museum director, also said Mr. Avery was a “significant donor” to the institution.
In addition to his daughter, survivors include his wife, a retired psychiatric nurse; two sons, Carlos Matthew Avery of Germantown and Christopher Avery of Reisterstown; another daughter, Erica Avery of Greenfield, Massachusetts; two brothers, Mark Avery of Ormond Beach, Florida, and Steve Avery of Sartell, Minnesota; and a grandson.