What's in a name? Less and less for Baltimore's iconic buildings

Baltimore's tallest building, at 100 Light St., is now the Transamerica Tower. Formerly called the Legg Mason Building, it was originally built as the headquarters of the United States Fidelity and Guaranty (USF&G) Company in 1973 — one of the cornerstones of the redeveloped Inner Harbor.

Names of buildings used to be carved in stone, but with today's merger mania and the growth of multi-national corporations, building names can change as frequently as the seasons, causing confusion among residents, journalists and architectural historians.


At one time, 10 Light St. (one block north of the Transamerica Tower) was Baltimore's tallest building. People look at me quizzically when I refer to it as the Baltimore Trust Company Building. It is now known as the Bank of America Building, but it had five earlier names: NationsBank, Maryland National, Mathieson, O'Sullivan and Baltimore Trust.

So, what to call it? According to guidelines of the National Register of Historic Places, the historic name of a building is the name that best reflects the property's historic importance. The building at 10 Light St. is primarily significant for its architectural design, rather than any specific occupant. Therefore, it should be identified with the company that originally built it, the Baltimore Trust Company (even though that company folded during the Great Depression, four years after the building was completed).


Sometimes, calling a building by its original name can be misleading.

I attend synagogue on Lloyd Street at the B'nai Israel Congregation.

The Chizuk Amuno Congregation built the synagogue in 1876. Even though Chizuk Amuno moved after 19 years and sold the building to B'nai Israel, the synagogue is listed in the National Register as Chizuk Amuno. Throughout its history, that congregation built four synagogues in Baltimore: at Lloyd Street, McCulloh Street, Eutaw Place and Stevenson Road. All four buildings survive, and three are still used as synagogues. Should they all be known as Chizuk Amuno?

Calling the current B'nai Israel Synagogue "Chizuk Amuno" — which is currently an active suburban congregation — doesn't make sense.

Buildings often outlive their original use, so there should not be a problem changing the name of a building. All the same, I find it peculiar that Baltimore's Transamerica Tower features large rooftop signs depicting a logo of another building clear across the country.

The logo of Transamerica is a stylized drawing of San Francisco's Transamerica Pyramid — the original home of the company. The pyramid is the tallest building in San Francisco and caused quite a stir when it was completed in 1972. Aegon has owned Transamerica since 1999.

Those entities are no longer housed in San Francisco, yet the iconic pyramid from that other city by the bay can now be seen at Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

At least Aegon did not cover over the building's date stone, located at the Charles Street entrance of the building's plaza. It identifies the original USF&G name, as well as Vlastimil Koubek, the architect, and Huber, Hunt & Nichols, the builder.


If it was up to me, I would name 100 Light St. the Peregrine Tower for the falcons that have been roosting on its 33rd floor ledge for the past 33 years. The role the building has played in the reintroduction of a former endangered species to the Eastern United States is the building's claim to fame. The stories of Baltimore's peregrine falcons — Scarlett, Rhett, Ashley, Beauregard, Blythe and the rest — are more compelling than the history of the corporations that have occupied the building.

The name of Baltimore firefighter Joseph Bayne should also be memorialized in the plaza surrounding the building; after all, he tragically died in a fire in this building in 1977.

Since I am neither the owner nor lead tenant of the building, I doubt anyone will pay attention to my opinion in this matter. So, long live Baltimore's Transamerica Tower … until the next name comes along.

Fred B. Shoken is a historic preservation professional living in Baltimore City. His email address is