Brewing It All Back Home
By Lee Gardner
Architect George Holback has loved the American Brewery building since he was a child. Like many Baltimoreans, he often passed by the five-story 1887 brick structure towering over workaday Gay Street on the city’s east side, marveling at its trio of ornate cupolas, looming cornice, and eccentric assortment of windows. Like many Baltimoreans, he watched it fall into decay after the facility closed in 1973 and the neighborhood around it sank into urban blight. Like a surprising number of Baltimoreans, he admits to breaking into the building and exploring the vandalized ruin.
Now Holback jumps at the chance to come back to Gay Street to show off the new American Brewery building, designed by his firm, Cho Benn Holback + Associates, for Humanim, a Maryland-based non-profit social services organization. Working closely with Baltimore-based contractor Struever Brothers Eccles & Rouse (SBER), which specializes in ambitious historic rehabs, Holback not only oversaw the restoration of one of Baltimore’s endangered architectural treasures, he helped the building get back to work for this blue-collar town. Not surprisingly, he calls it, “one of those projects that you spend your whole career wanting to get to do.”
He had his work cut out for him. By the time SBER first submitted a proposal to redevelop the then-city-owned building in the early 2000s, it had been derelict for decades. Fires had damaged the first floor and destroyed part of the roof, leaving the structure open to the elements. Most of the equipment and fixtures had been stripped, and the interior floors had rotted. Yet it still stood, dominating the surrounding blocks of humble rowhouses. “The stature and the integrity of the building is really what saved it,” Holback says. “It’s a well-built industrial building. If this had been some light-frame building, it wouldn’t have survived.”
Indeed, it was still impressive enough that it stopped Humanim CEO Henry E. Posko Jr. and Chief Development Officer Cindy Truitt in their tracks. Having committed to establishing new offices in Baltimore in the mid-’00s, they were having trouble finding a suitable space. “It’s a weird storybook kind of story, but we were driving by the American Brewery and knew at that moment that that’s where we needed to be,” Truitt recalls. (They trespassed for an impromptu tour, too.) Not only was the building situated in the heart of East Baltimore, an area desperately in need of the education and training services Humanim provides, but bringing it back to life would help jump-start economic development in the surrounding community. “It was the perfect synthesis,” Truitt says.
Partnering with Gotham Development, Humanim availed itself of SBER’s expertise in utilizing historic tax credits to fund the purchase and restoration, thereby covering around $15 million of the project’s estimated $25 million cost; between grants and money from various other government sources, Truitt says, the non-profit had to raise just $6.7 million in private funding. Cho Benn + Holback got the job to execute the design in 2006.
The historic tax-credit strictures meant that Holback and company had to preserve much of the building’s original structure and details—not that they needed convincing. “What we were trying to do was save as much of the story about the brewing process as we could,” he says. “We were constantly searching for elements we could re-use.”
Perhaps the best example of the project’s adaptive re-use is the central grain silo, a massive square wooden shaft that plunges from near the peak of the building’s tall central tower down to the third floor. By cutting into the shaft’s 6-inch-thick heart-pine walls on each level, Holback’s design transformed it into a distinctive elevator lobby space and the central core of the building’s offices, just as it was once the core of its brewing operation; opening up the interior of the silo also provides a fascinating exploded view of the chutes and conveyors of the brewery’s original inner workings.
Elsewhere, the bottom of a massive fermenting tank has been adapted to provide an inverted dome for a computer nook, which nestles behind a massive curve of metal that once helped support the tank and is now carved into a decorative divider. Another tank that couldn’t be utilized where it sat was lifted out by crane and cut into sections, one of which forms the sign out front, another of which was fashioned into the elegant steam-punk front reception desk. Several lobby spaces are lined with original unrefinished beadboard salvaged from elsewhere in the building. “It was a lot more fun than taking it to the dump,” Holback says of the re-purposed materials. (Sadly, no feasible re-use could be found for the pair of intersecting vaulted tunnels that extend behind the building 30 feet underground.)
Of course, certain aspects of the new building had to be whipped up from scratch. Working from the one original window left in place and consulting archival images, Marvin Windows manufactured aluminum-clad wooden replacements for each of the approximately 30 different window shapes and styles. Some aspects of the original building that couldn’t be re-used or otherwise recreated still found their way into the design: colors from fragments of the stained glass window that once decorated the old brewmaster’s lab are echoed in the beaded glass used in office-door sidelights; the position of a massive fermentation tank that had to be removed is outlined from floor to floor in outsized discs of contrasting carpet and hanging ceiling structures.
The resulting space, which currently houses about 60 Humanim employees with more to come, makes the most of the building’s original functional roominess, with each wing housing open-plan office space filled with low cubicles. A more generic industrial addition added to the back of the building in the 1930s to shelter another giant tank now provides soaring headspace above a cafeteria area. A large ground-floor area lined with enormous exterior doors that used to accommodate unloading grain wagons now hosts a conference room designated for community use.
After all, helping uplift a struggling community is a big part of what the American Brewery project has been about. Plans are in place to transform a former bottling facility, just to the northeast of the main building, into a community center, which may include a charter school for the neighborhood. Several older buildings across Gay Street have been converted already into senior housing as part of a separate project. Now that Holback has overseen the rebirth of the brewery building he’s been infatuated with most of his life, he looks forward to seeing the surrounding streets looking livelier, too. “The hope was that this would be a catalyst for the neighborhood,” he says, “and it’s already started.”
Lee Gardner is the Editor of Baltimore City Paper.