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Bank of America Building
When it was completed in 1929, the Baltimore Trust Building was the tallest office building in the country south of New York City, rising to a height of thirty-four stories (or 509 feet). It remains one of the most prominent and engaging features of the Baltimore skyline and is the city’s only setback Art Deco skyscraper. Baltimore Trust was intended to be the city’s largest and finest office building, including many modern amenities now considered standard, such as underfloor electrical systems, high-speed elevators, large plate-glass windows, ample restrooms, and ladies lounges. It also included a boardroom inspired by a Florentine palace, the “Chesapeake Club” dining room and lounge, and the top-level Tower Service Club with exercise, shower, and barber facilities. According to promotional brochures, the Baltimore Trust Building was to be “a distinctive address for men of vision,” symbolizing stability and inspiring respect and confidence. In fact, the Baltimore Trust Company was the largest financial institution in Maryland, representing a consolidation of the National Exchange Bank, Atlantic Trust Company, National Union Bank of Maryland, and Century Trust Company.
The architectural firms of Taylor and Fisher (R.E. Lee Taylor and David Fisher) and Smith and May (William Levering Smith and Howard May), in collaboration with Girard Engineering were responsible for the design. The Art Deco ornamentation was the work of Austrian-born designer Louis Fentner, then based in New York, with murals by local artisans McGill Mackall and Griffith Baily Coale, and mosaics by internationally recognized designer Hildreth Meiere. The building was erected of local brick on structural steel framework with Indiana limestone used for the facing, the elaborate cornice of the lower stories, and the exuberant carved detailing in the upper stories.
As with most skyscrapers of this era, the Baltimore Trust Building uses a tripartite composition to organize its considerable height. Like a classical column it includes a “base,” “shaft” (mid-section), and “capital” or upper levels from which the ornamented setbacks and center tower spring. The multi-story base or lower levels combine elements of the Romanesque. It is sheathed in limestone and crowned by an elaborate corbelled frieze of richly carved limestone with an alternating pattern of medallions and a tripartite arrangement of stylized owls. The main entry is located within a round-arched opening with an archivolt that rises to the corbelled frieze to embrace a multi-story light over the bronze doorway. The lower stories are modulated; at the street level are the storefronts and entries into the banking hall, with paired single-story windows in the next level, followed by two levels of vertically banded windows joined by limestone spandrels ornamented with carved medallions. Above the base, the brick shaft rises thirteen stories at which point the center portion and flanking setbacks are differentiated. The center section rises in a stepped formation into a spire capped by a steep hipped roof covered in copper and gold, with limestone stanchions in the form of stylized waves. Both the setbacks and the central tower feature elaborate carved limestone and multi-story, round-arched tracery windows. The limestone carvings are of stylized sunbursts, zigzags, and other geometric patterns interspersed with representations of indigenous wildlife such as the eagle, owl, and the (quintessentially Maryland) crab. Bronze detailing also appears around the first-story windows and doorways in owl-head and foliated patterns.
On the interior, the elaborate two-story, 50 x 200–foot banking hall is ornamented from floor to ceiling, including depictions of important events in Baltimore and Maryland history. The floors are mosaic tile in patterns designed by Meiere, who also designed many of the decorative features for New York's Radio City Music Hall and St. Bartholomew's Church. These patterns include symbolic representations of the city’s progress and industry embracing themes such as medicine, textiles, shipping, manufacturing, and the railroads. On the walls are four murals, each measuring 16 x 27 feet, crafted by McGill Mackall and Griffith Baily Coale, that depict historical events: the 1634 founding of the Maryland colony, the writing of Francis Scott Key’s national anthem during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812, and the Baltimore fire of 1904. The space is delineated by massive columns in Levanto, Pyrenees, Verde Antique, and other marbles. Decorative iron grilles and light fixtures are the work of well-known Philadelphia ironworker Samuel Yellin. The ceiling is coffered and painted in multi-colored geometric patterns.
With the Baltimore Trust Building still under construction on the eve of the Great Depression, its owners eventually went bankrupt. The building remained empty for its first year and the company ultimately vacated it by 1935. During the New Deal, the Maryland offices of Public Works Administration occupied some of the building. It was purchased by Maryland National Bank in 1961 and by Nations Bank in 1993, later merging with Bank of America in 1997. The banking floor closed in 2013 and plans are underway to convert the entire building into apartments with commercial space on the first floor.
Bach, Ira J. Chicago’s Famous Buildings. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Baltimore Trust Building, Baltimore, Maryland, HABS No. MD-1119. Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, Department of the Interior, 2001.
Dilts, James D., and John Dorsey. A Guide to Baltimore Architecture. 3rd ed. Centreville, MD: Tidewater Publishers, 1997.
Goldberger, Paul. The Skyscraper. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.
Lemire, Elsie, and Benjamin Flowers. Skyscraper: The Politics and Power of Building New York City in the Twentieth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.
Striner, Richard, and Melissa Blair. Washington and Baltimore Art Deco: A Design History of Neighboring Cities. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2014.
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