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Charmed Life

High and Dry

Michelle Gienow

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 2/16/2000

The five-sided, 29-story World Trade Center isn't Baltimore's only landmark polygonal tower. An eight-sided, 148-foot structure stands five miles to the north, near the confluence of Roland Avenue and University Parkway.

This, according to bronze plaques flanking its doorway, is the Roland Water Tower, but it's better known—somewhat misleadingly—as the Roland Park Water Tower. Strictly speaking, it's in Hoes Heights. During its brief functional life, from 1905 to 1930, it provided water not to Roland Park, but to Hampden and other neighborhoods lying downhill. Windows scattered up the structure's shaft suggest that it has rooms and floors inside, but it's basically a hollow shell enclosing an empty, 211,000-gallon water tank.

Purposeless and now dilapidated, the tower is still a thing of beauty. The entry—closed, these days, with a steel door—is surmounted by a sculpted swag of leaves and fruits. Bronze grilles span the windows. The walls, tapering upward from an ornate base of brick, stone, and terra cotta, are of buff brick laid in the classic "Flemish bond" pattern favored in Roland Park and Guilford. On top, a peaked roof of green tile rests on a gallery of arched windows. Even the tower's setting, a grassy square with steps leading to the doorway, suggests a monument rather than a municipal utility shed. There was a time when people could climb the tower's interior stairs and enjoy an impressive view, but its doors have been locked for many years. The keys are held by the Mass Transit Administration, which uses the square as a bus turnaround.

The tower's location was probably dictated by hydraulics: Engineers needed a spot midway in elevation between Druid Hill Park, site of the old Western Pumping Station, and Hampden. As to why such an elaborate housing was built, one can only surmise that it was intended to please Roland Parkers, who might otherwise have objected to someone else's plumbing fixture marring their view to the south. Their own water needs were met by a private company up until 1918, when the neighborhood was annexed by Baltimore City and—despite residents' complaints—connected to the city water system. Whatever the rationale, the city hired architect William J. Fizone to design the tower, and he did such a fine job that it's now a community icon. It even appears on the letterhead of the Roland Park Civic League.

From time to time, various parties have proposed uses for the landmark. In the early '80s, developer Steve Zinz wanted to buy the tower from the city and turn it into his private residence. An experienced renovator, Zinz planned to install a sunken living room on the first floor, a greenhouse at the top, and a series of ladder-accessed loft spaces in between. He even hired Little Italy painter Tony DeSales to do an artist's rendering of the scheme.

Now a Hampden resident, Zinz wistfully recalls the day he first entered the tower. "It's got this huge spiral staircase that wraps around the water tank. I didn't realize till I was three-quarters of the way up that the bolts [holding the staircase to the tank] had rusted off." Undaunted, he clambered to the top and lifted a trap door. "There must have been six inches of pigeon shit up there, and it all came down on my head. It didn't faze me in the least. I was like a kid in a candy store."

The city, which owns the property, referred Zinz's proposal to the Roland Park Civic League. "They thought I was off my nut," he recalls. "They couldn't imagine how anyone would live in a building that still had the water tank in it." (He had planned to make the tank "almost disappear" by cutting out a series of arched openings with an acetylene torch.) The neighborhood group put the kibosh on his scheme in 1981 without even looking at his drawings.

Since then, the tower's roof has been proposed as a site for cellular-phone panels. That notion fizzled, but Zinz remains rankled. "I would have enhanced the place!" he laments. He occasionally runs into people who, having heard fragments of his story, believe he lives in the tower.

Would he consider reviving his pitch to a new generation of civic-league members? "Naah," he says. "The thrill is gone."

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