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Chesapeake Shakespeare Company
The Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Company Building was erected in 1885 and designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style by the local architectural firm, Wyatt and Sperry. Best known for their commercial and ecclesiastical designs, this building is considered one of the finest examples of their work. In an 1891 essay, noted critic Montgomery Schuyler spoke of the Mercantile Trust Building’s classic purity, calling it “the most admirable of the commercial buildings in Baltimore.” Built of red brick, the Mercantile Trust Building exhibits hallmark features of the Richardsonian style, including massive masonry walls punctuated by windows with oversized round-arches and flat banded windows with lights divided by colonettes, as well as terra-cotta quoins, lintels, and details. The terra-cotta details appear in relief panels and are cast in intricate foliated patterns and with symbols of commercial function such as the head of Mercury, the god of commerce.
The Mercantile Trust Company, which built and occupied this structure from 1886 to 1969, was a significant commercial presence in late-nineteenth-century Baltimore and made key contributions to the post–Civil War era financial practice; it was among the first institutions to offer “department store” banking whereby customers no longer needed to save at one bank and borrow from another, as had been the practice. According to historian Laurie Ossman, the building’s heavy masonry and solid Romanesque forms were “calculated to have a resounding rhetorical impact as a physical manifestation of impenetrability.” As proof of its impenetrability, it was one of the few buildings to withstand Baltimore’s Great Fire, which swept through the financial district in 1904, destroying over 1,500 structures. A period photograph of the Mercantile Trust building standing amidst the ruins of the fire’s aftermath is among the most reproduced images of the event.
J.B. Noel Wyatt (1847–1926) is believed to have taken the lead in designing the Mercantile Trust Building. Wyatt graduated from Harvard in 1870 and then enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture. He studied there for a year before entering the Atelier Vaudremer affiliated with the Ecole des Beaux Arts, where he remained for three years. He returned to his hometown of Baltimore in 1874 and worked for E. Francis Baldwin—noted architect for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad—before opening his own office in 1876. Wyatt’s family connections and his impressive professional credentials contributed to his success; by 1876 he was an officer in the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects and had designs published in American Architect and Buildings News. In 1877, he entered into a decade-long partnership with Joseph Evans Sperry (1854–1930). Sperry appears to have learned the trade through apprenticeship; he began advertising for architectural services at age sixteen and two years later was in the employ of E. Francis Baldwin, where he met Wyatt. Their firm’s most noted works include the Church of St. Michael and All Angels and Belvidere Terrace (one of the city’s most exuberant examples of high-Victorian eclecticism). It was the Mercantile Trust Building, however, that Wyatt is said to have been most proud. Wyatt later formed a partnership with William G. Nolting, designing buildings such as the Baltimore City Courthouse and dozens of houses in Baltimore’s Olmsted-designed residential community of Roland Park. Both Wyatt and Sperry are credited with professionalizing nineteenth-century architectural practice by integrating consulting engineers into the design process.
As is emblematic of the Romanesque Revival, the Mercantile Trust Building is a solid masonry structure built of finely joined red brick resting on a rusticated stone foundation, with wide, recessed, round-arched openings and banded windows offset by decorative colonettes with foliated capitals. Perhaps due to its urban setting and commercial function, it has no tower and is symmetrically arranged with steeply pitched gable front sections flanking a center entry pavilion and divided horizontally by decorative belt courses. The entry is deeply recessed within the center pavilion and the opening flanked by squat columns with foliated capitals resting on a low wall. Highly ornamental foliated belt courses appear, as do inscribed and decorated terra-cotta panels in a Renaissance arabesque pattern. Raised above ground level are massive, flanking multi-light windows set in a wide, round arch. The corner pilaster of the front facade wraps around the building where the one exposed side elevation similarly exhibits bands of windows separated by colonettes, belt courses, and foliated terra-cotta panels. Pilasters also separate the original section from the addition; executed soon after the completion of the building, the exposed side wall of the rear addition is nearly identical to the original.
Planning for the Mercantile Trust Building began with the first meeting of the building committee on October 7, 1884. Three Baltimore firms were invited to submit designs: J.C. Neilson and Baldwin and Pennington, in addition to winners Wyatt and Spree. Construction began on February 17, 1885. When it was completed that same year, the building appeared in American Architect and Building News.
A two-story addition was added to the rear of the structure c. 1899. Although the exterior of the Mercantile Trust Building survived the Great Fire of 1904, a portion of a neighboring structure fell through the roof, damaging the interior; the main vaults were not breeched. The original company sold the building in 1969. The Helm Foundation purchased it in 2012 for use by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, who rehabilitated it as a performance venue.
Andrews, Ronald L. “Mercantile Trust and Deposit Company,” Baltimore City, Maryland. National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, 1983. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.
Hunter, William J. “Mercantile Trust & Deposit Company,” Addendum to: HABS No. MD-191. Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, 1960.
Ossman, Laurie. “Mercantile Trust & Deposit Company,” Addendum to: HABS No. MD-191. Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, 2001.
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