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Place Invaders

Writer Sarah Achenbach and Photographer Bill McAllen Collect Baltimore Stories About Buildings and Moods

Photographer Bill Mcallen Poses in UM's Davidge Hall, his Spirit Of Place place.

By Chris Landers | Posted 11/19/2008

The Baltimore Trust Company Building, at 10 Light St. downtown, was conceived as a temple to commerce--an Art Deco monument to all things capitalist and great. In the banking area, four murals depicting pivotal moments in Maryland and Baltimore history--from the landing of the Ark and Dove at St. Clement's island in 1634 to welders working high above the port--look down on wrought-iron tellers' windows. Flags of the states and nations jut into the cavernous marble hall. On the floor, mosaics depict the elements and man's mastery thereof (a seated, toga-clad figure holds a set of gears in a tribute to industry). A frieze pays homage to the poem "Cargoes" by John Masefield. Upon the building's completion, a committee of Baltimoreans granted it an architectural medal, declaring it "an effective answer to those short-sighted citizens who have maintained that skyscrapers, at best, were a necessary evil, to be defended only on the ground of economic necessity."

In short, it is a beautiful building. Unfortunately, it took in its first occupants in October 1929, and by the time the skyscraper officially opened, the Great Depression had begun. The Baltimore Trust Company stayed largely vacant until 1940.

Today, several names and owners later, 10 Light Street is just as beautiful, but unless you happen to be a customer of the Bank of America branch that takes up about half of the grand banking hall, there's really no reason to go inside. Sightseeing is not exactly discouraged, but standing around inside any bank for no obvious reason will, let's face it, be greeted with a little suspicion by the men who guard it.

Ten Light St. is also the favorite Baltimore building of Walter and Nancy Schamu, who are the president of SMG architects and the executive director of the National Conference of State Historical Preservation Officers, respectively. The Schamus, and the building, are featured on page 38 of the new book Spirit of Place: Baltimore's Favorite Spaces, by writer Sarah Achenbach and photographer Bill McAllen.

Achenbach had been to 10 Light Street before, but saw more of it after talking to the Schamus. "They're both really enmeshed in preservation architecture," she says. "They began telling me about the outside ornamentation of the building--at every level and every detail and at every windowsill. I'd seen the building downtown, from afar, but every time I go downtown now I look at that corner, and I'm looking for something new--a few stories up or right there at the door. So, we're hoping that this book helps people see something in Baltimore in a different light."

"When I'm walking down near Baltimore and Light Street now," McAllen says, tracing across a copy of his photograph of the building's interior, "I walk in the Baltimore Street entrance, which is here, not the Light Street entrance. I walk in this entrance, I walk past all these columns, and I exit on the Light Street side. It's just the grandeur of the building."

Spirit of Place is an extended ode to the places in the city that have left a mark on residents' lives, from the Govans branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library where Jim and Mary Bready met in 1941 to the Block's Gayety Theatre, which Café Hon owner Denise Whiting says she has only admired from the outside.

The book grew out of a 2005 article the pair collaborated on for Style magazine. Achenbach, whose favorite place is Hampden's 34th Street at Christmas time, approached the magazine with the idea of writing about "My favorite building and me." McAllen, who prefers the University of Maryland School of Medicine's Davidge Hall (an operating theater where dissections were performed), had a slightly different twist.

"If Baltimore were on fire, what would you save?" he recalls. "It doesn't sell as well."

"It's a little more macabre," Achenbach notes.

After the article appeared, McAllen and Achenbach decided to go for a full coffee-table book and broadened their search for people and places. They began meeting to discuss the project at the Panera on York Road, where they sat recently over a set of uncorrected proofs and a cup of coffee. The book pairs a McAllen photograph of the place and person with excerpts from Achenbach's interviews on the facing page. They range from the obscure and quirky--David Simon contributed an essay on the Pabst Castle (Charles and Wells Streets)--to buildings we pass every day: Walter Sondheim Jr. chose One Charles Center as a symbol of the Baltimore Renaissance. It's by no means complete--Achenbach and McAllen are already anticipating criticism for not including the Basilica ("Our answer is that [the Basilica] is a fantastic building," Achenbach says, "One of the best. No one chose it--we didn't tell people what to choose.")--but they say the book isn't meant as an architectural guide to the city.

In spotlighting the buildings and the people, they explore the interplay between the two. "The buildings as playgrounds," as Achenbach puts it. The choice of place was left to the participants--some chose neighborhoods, such as filmmaker Matt Porterfield, who told Achenbach that he didn't appreciate Hamilton while he was growing up there, but he's learned to love it as an adult, and William "Bus" Chambers, the unofficial Mayor of Pigtown.

Others chose buildings that probably wouldn't rate a second glance but were important for reasons that have nothing to do with architectural grandeur (ever take a good look at the former Hess Shoes building where a young Laura Lippman's shoes were stolen from the parking lot?). Some locations are inaccessible to the public (McAllen took his picture of Rowland Fontz on one of the last days he climbed the stairs to his workshop in the Bromo-Seltzer clock tower, where he'd worked since 1972), some are gone: former sportscaster Vince Bagli displays a pennant in front of a paint store that stands where he once saw games at Oriole Park, and recalls the night the ballpark burned.

McAllen and Achenbach formed Charm City Publishing to release the book. "We just decided in this day and age, if we were investing so much of our time and our soul into the book and how we wanted it too look, we might as well go the extra step and invest our money in it, too," Achenbach says. "We looked around and started those initial conversations with publishers and kind of decided why not?

"We knew how we wanted the book to look, and it's not a scholarly publication or architectural survey," she continues. "A lot of presses, that's what they do, but this is not that. This is an art photography book, no question, this is oral history, it definitely has a very regional focus. . . . You have to know and be a fan of the city. It is one big love letter to Baltimore, and that's what we always wanted it to be."

Achenbach says they are already getting questions about what the new publishing company will do next. "We don't know," Achenbach says while going over a pre-publication stack of printed pages. "We'd like to see how this goes, first."

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