The Charles Center project was a post-war effort to address the shrinking tax base in Baltimore’s central business district with a bold urban renewal initiative. One Charles Center was intended to be the project’s centerpiece and a catalyst for additional redevelopment. The twenty-three-story, aluminum and glass tower was designed by modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the spare and elegant style he made famous. One Charles Center is one of only two Mies buildings in Maryland (the other is Highfield House Condominiums, 1964, also in Baltimore).
The initial plans for Charles Center were presented to the City of Baltimore in 1958. The 22-acre downtown site contained nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century buildings considered blighted because of declining use in wholesale and light manufacturing. Baltimore’s financial district lay to the east and the main retail district to the west. The project proposed cutting through the street grid and placing modern office towers and a hotel around a central plaza. The next year the Baltimore Urban Renewal and Housing Authority called for proposals for a speculative office building to launch the development. By March 1960, six teams had submitted designs, including other prominent modernists such as Marcel Breuer. Mies was the biggest name, however, and the promise of one of his signature towers for downtown Baltimore secured the project for Metropolitan Structures, a Chicago-based development firm.
Built in 1962, One Charles Center has a carefully proportioned anodized aluminum and glass curtain wall grid hung on a reinforced concrete structural system. The T-shaped office tower and the plaza sit on a tall concrete podium (originally faced with travertine) containing a parking garage and retail spaces. The tower includes a high lobby with glass walls recessed under the structural piers. A central elevator and service core gave each floor an open plan for maximum flexibility. The elevator core has green Tinos marble walls while the original travertine lobby floor has been replaced with precast concrete pavers. One Charles Center was later joined by other pieces of the complex including a pair of residential towers at Two Charles Center (1965–1969, Conklin and Rossant), the Morris A. Mechanic Theater, a bold Brutalist structure executed in concrete (opened 1967, John Johansen; demolished 2014–2015), and Charles Center South (1975, RTKL Associates), a hexagonal tower of black granite and glass.
While the award-winning Charles Center brought national attention to the revitalization efforts in Baltimore, it suffered the same problems as modern urban projects, though the master plan called for a variety of uses and preservation of some historic structures, an improvement over the approach of other cities. Nonetheless, the complex turns its back on Charles Street and is oriented toward the central plaza and this dramatic break with the existing urban landscape, coupled with incomplete realization meant that Charles Center never quite became the catalyst of a fully revitalized downtown hoped for by its developers and city officials. It can be credited with creating momentum and a model of master planning that informed the next major redevelopment effort around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
Bird, Betty. “One Charles Center,” Baltimore City, Maryland. National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, 2000. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.
Hayward, Mary Ellen, and Frank R. Shivers, Jr., eds. The Architecture of Baltimore: An Illustrated History. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.