Baltimore City Hall is one of the earliest and most intact examples of Second Empire government architecture in the country. Begun in 1867 and completed in 1875, it represents a monumental example of a public building in a style that dominated American architecture from the end of the Civil War until around 1880. The designer, George A. Frederick, was only twenty-two when his design was selected; two years later the young architect was hired to supervise construction as well. Also noteworthy is the building’s original segmented cast-iron dome designed by Wendel Bollman, who is remembered for his patented design of the Bollman Truss Bridge, a milestone in bridge technology.
Baltimore City Hall features a central block with four corner pavilions and a rather tall mansard with dormers applied to the slopes of the roof. A central pavilion capped by a pediment and supporting a shallow columned porch identifies the main entrance. Beyond the entrance is an impressive grand stair hall leading to a rotunda. Both the stair hall and rotunda are particularly rich in their extensive Renaissance ornament. Rising from the center of the building is a circular tower with columns, roundels, and an iron dome supporting a lantern with a gilded roof.
It is likely that Frederick developed his design from published sources of Italian Renaissance plates combined with mid-nineteenth-century French books featuring the mansard roof. Apart from Frederick’s age and inexperience, speculation on published sources is suggested by the design itself, which is academic in its interpretation of French Renaissance motifs. Frederick’s ability to develop such a grand interpretation of the Second Empire style is surprising since at that time there were not many completed examples to consult for comparison. Boston’s City Hall, just dedicated in 1865, was a quite different interpretation based upon newly completed wings to the Louvre in Paris. The Corcoran Gallery (now Renwick Gallery) in Washington was then completed on the exterior, but its brick and brownstone design is also quite different from the white magnesia limestone of Frederick’s design. The great government buildings by U.S. Treasury architect Alfred B. Mullett (such as the Old Executive Office Building) were in the earliest stages of planning and construction in 1869, and John McArthur Jr.’s Philadelphia City Hall was not begun until 1871. The popularity of this style for public buildings around the country probably increased with the widespread publications of these designs long before the buildings were completed. The design of Baltimore City Hall, for example, was featured in Harper’s Weekly on May 1, 1869.
By the end of World War II, Baltimore City Hall was showing signs of significant deterioration, including the erosion of the iron-crafted dome and ornamental features, and the failing of its mechanical systems. In 1974, the City thankfully voted to renovate rather than replace the aging structure; City Hall received a major renovation under the direction of Architectural Heritage, Inc. and local architects Meyers, D’Aleo and Patton. The work included the restoration of the ceremonial chambers, the repair and reassembly of the dome, and the expansion of usable office space. In 2009, the crumbling marble facades were repaired as well.
Perlman, Bernard B. “The City Hall, Baltimore.” Maryland Historical MagazineXLVII (1952): 40-54.
Reed, Roger. Building Victorian Boston: The Architecture of Gridley J.F. Bryant. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007.
Reed, Roger, “The Second Empire Style: A Thematic Study for National Historic Landmark Listing.” National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Programs, 2015. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Townsend, Arthur, “Baltimore City Hall,” Baltimore City, Maryland. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1972. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.