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Baltimore architects pick five buildings that inspire

Architect William Schamu stands in front of the Marbury Building
Architect William Schamu stands in front of the Marbury Building - Steve Ruark
Baltimore’s vital role in American history, its mix of Northern and Southern cultures and its rich architectural heritage present themselves daily in brick and stone, glass and steel.
We asked five city architects to name their favorite local buildings, with the caveat that the building cannot be one that they have worked on. Their picks are an ornate holy shrine in Mount Vernon; a museum that pays tribute to Baltimore’s railroad legacy; an ultra-modern office building in Mt. Washington; a downtown Art Deco skyscraper, and a former drive-in restaurant that brings back childhood memories.
The architects tell us in their own words why the buildings they picked stand out. They remind us that buildings are more than just functional structures, but, in the words of one architect, places that bring people together with lasting significance.
Walter Schamu, SMG Architects
Favorite Baltimore building: Marbury Building, 6225 Smith Ave., Mount Washington
Projects: Renovations or restoration of Mt. Washington Tavern, Garrett-Jacobs Mansion, Homewood Mansion, Bromo Seltzer Tower, Hippodrome.

Why he likes the Marbury: This ultra-modernist building was designed in 1990 by Charles Brickbauer and shimmers in the sunlight with a flush glass curtain wall with mirrored spandrel beams. [The spandrel is the horizontal connecting beam between two columns. In this building it is recessed behind the glass curtain wall and mirrored to achieve a remarkable reflectivity.] A truly modernist expression for a very conservative, more brick-on-brick town like Baltimore.

What the building says about Baltimore: Baltimore doesn’t have to be stuck architecturally in the 19th century. Modern and contemporary design can happen here and can be of a world-class category.
Several years ago, I was leading a tour of Baltimore for two Danish church architects, Johannes and Inger Exner, and I took them to see this building. They had been shown every Colonial revival, Gothic revival and neo-Classical revival church on the East Coast of the U.S. from Boston to Baltimore. When they asked if there was any contemporary or modern building in Baltimore, church or non-church, to be seen, I took them to see this building and they practically wept with appreciation and actually had to touch the building to believe its beauty.

Frank Gant, Gant Brunnett Architects
Favorite Baltimore building: Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption
Projects: Hayfields Golf Club; Gilchrist Hospice, Columbia; Annapolis Federal Parole Bank; Peabody Court Hotel

Why he likes the Basilica: The Basilica is contemporary to its time and incorporates outstanding use of light and shadows. Once you visit the Basilica, the architecture impresses you with the importance of good design and that makes it a special and memorable place.

What the building says about Baltimore: It’s a statement of the rich architectural heritage of the city and represents the past and future of the design profession in Baltimore.
The Basilica is just outside my studio window and it never grows old. The relief in fenestration casts shadows that change over the course of the day and the seasons. It is simply a masterpiece.
Brandon Diamond, DDG
Favorite Baltimore building: 10 Light Street
Projects: National Harbor; Fairfax Corner Town Center; Clearwater Bay Shopping Resort (Hainan, China); Portales Mall (Guatemala City)

Why he likes 10 Light: I had the pleasure of working the majority of my career within a block of 10 Light Street. As we came out of our building, we would see at 10 Light Street the most elegant executive retailers in downtown: Bertram’s Inkwell and Eddie Jacobs Men’s wear. Bank of America also utilized this most spectacular foyer for a branch location, until sadly, it closed its doors this year.
I am pleased to hear that a re-purchase of 10 Light Street last year brings with it plans to convert all the vacant tower space to luxury residences, along with opening new street businesses, and even utilizing the great foyer as a banquet facility. 
What the building says about Baltimore: This building always felt to me as an iconic fulcrum of downtown Baltimore. One might describe it as a great cathedral to the industrious human spirit, and particularly to Baltimore’s spirit. Among its many themes, it pays tribute to Baltimore’s determination to rebuild the city after the Great Fire of 1904. In its many bronze-owl storefronts overlooking the sidewalks, many a pedestrian’s attention is caught, even if they do not bother to look up at this splendid Art Deco masterpiece.
Lisa M. Ferretto, Hord Coplan Macht
Favorite Baltimore building: Circle Drive-In, restaurant 555 Dundalk Ave., in operation 1947-1997
Projects: Towson University Arena; Union Wharf apartments

Why she likes the Circle: Really great memories. I grew up in East Baltimore and would go there frequently as a child with my sister, father, and grandmother. They had the best chocolate milkshakes. Plus, who doesn’t like a circle? There was no building signage — just a circle symbol above the door and a very large BBQ sandwich sign. 
What the building says about Baltimore: The Circle Drive-In was in operation for 50 years and represents family and tradition in Baltimore neighborhoods. Many families share the same rituals over many generations, as did mine. The irony of this building being one of my favorites is that I am a sustainability coordinator who promotes “alternative transportation” and “slow food,” where this building type supports the age of the car and fast food.
When I first started studying architecture, I actually drew plans for how I would convert the space to my future architectural firm practice. After six years on the West Coast, I returned to my hometown and was very sad to see that the Circle Drive-In was converted to a used car lot. The building is now vacant but perhaps one day this historic, Art Deco, 40-foot circle building can be adapted into a new use with new traditions for Baltimore.
Davin Hong, RTKL
Favorite Baltimore building: B&O Railroad Museum roundhouse
Projects: Assembly Apartments at Clipper Mill; Enoch Pratt Library’s Orleans Street Branch; Park School libraries

Why he likes the B&O: Apart from being a phenomenal museum honoring the history of the American railroad, the roundhouse is a wonderful example of rational industrial architecture. It is elegant in its simplicity, where every formal decision is born out of functional necessity. Yet it is neither austere nor inhuman. Like all great buildings, it has enduring beauty, value and significance.

What the building says about Baltimore: One may consider the roundhouse a relic of Baltimore’s former glory, recalling better days when, as a major shipping and manufacturing center, Baltimore was truly one of the greatest cities in America.
Moreover, the adaptive-reuse of such historic buildings truly testifies to the resiliency of the city.  By its very own ability to adapt and evolve to changing times, we can envision a future for Baltimore that finds strength in its assets to also adapt and evolve as a vibrant place to live, work, and visit.
One of my earliest childhood memories is of a visit to the B&O Museum with my father. While these memories are atmospheric and the details are scarce, I remember as a child encountering the Roundhouse full of trains and as a place of wonder. While I appreciate the building now for its structure, form, and rational order, I still love it for that day I walked through the gates in awe of my surroundings with my father’s hand in mine.
This experience, and others like it, has shaped my perception of the world and of my role as an architect. It reinforces to me the value of creating a sense of place: a place that is memorable and meaningful; a place that brings people together with lasting significance.

Wayne Countryman lives near a Baltimore landmark, the Roland Water Tower. He has been an editor with the Baltimore Sun, the Maryland Daily Record, the Baltimore Business Journal, and AmericanStyle and NICHE magazines.

Photographs by STEVE RUARK except Circle Drive-In courtesy of Baltimore County Public Library/Herbert H. Harwood Jr. and B&O roundhouse courtesy of the B&O Railroad Museum.

Click photos to read captions.
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