Drawing Board Dreams

The vision of Cho Benn Holback + Associates continues to reshape Baltimore's skyline.

The first time David Benn saw Clipper Mill, it was a ruin. The massive, main building of the 19th-century factory complex was open to the heavens, its roof gone, exposing charred girders and collapsed walls after a deadly fire in 1995 had reduced the place to a ghostly hulk. What buildings remained were jammed with forgotten industrial equipment.

But Benn didn't see the rubble, he saw what the mill could be.

"You look at a building and ask it, 'What do you want to be?'" he says.

That was 2002, when Benn's architectural firm, Cho Benn Holback + Associates (CBH), was part of a feasibility study to make the place into a sound stage. That project died, but a year later, developers Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse brought Benn back to the site with a vision to make the place a mixed-use "village."

Benn remembers wandering around in winter coats with Fred Struever, taking photos of all the factory gears, grindstones, and timbers they could repurpose, and brainstorming on the potential the place had. There were nice stone walls, train trestles, and the industrial equipment that hadn't melted in the fire, as well as a picturesque stream cutting through the project's center.

"At Clipper Mill, we were able to make the most out of cranes and trusses and the neat, old fabric of the place," Benn says.

The redevelopment of the 17-acre site, completed in 2006, is perhaps the most stunning example of CBH's knack for resurrecting an old structure and reimagining it in a new way.

If you've never heard of CBH, you've probably seen their work: They're the design brains behind Tindeco Wharf, Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards, the American Brewery Building, the Jim Rouse Visionary Center at the American Visionary Art Museum, Brown's Arcade, and the Brewers Hill complex, widely known for its "Natty Boh building." In all, the firm has completed $600 million worth of renovations for buildings built between 1840 and 1980, working with pioneering community development corporations and developers (most notably the now-down-on-its-luck Struever Bros.).

In some ways, in fact, the three CBH partners, with the help of developer/builders like Toby Bozzuto and Silo Point's Patrick Turner, have picked up the adaptive reuse mantle once carried by trailblazer Streuver Bros., preserving and resculpting Baltimore's forgotten and neglected structures.

"For going on 32 years, we've wanted to revitalize the city," says Benn. "We've always loved that Baltimore has so much great old stuff. We've always seen the potential in the post-industrial landscape."

Cho, Benn, and Holback never imagined they would one day look down on City Hall.

When the firm started in 1979, the company was based in a small office over the now-defunct Louie's Bookstore Café. Now the firm—which has annual revenues of about $4.5 million—is in Class-A office space in One Charles Center. The conference room looks onto City Hall's cupola and takes in the wide expanse of East Baltimore.

While it's fitting that the architects who have contributed so much to Baltimore's architectural landscape should now be able to look down on what they have created, principals Benn and George Holback, both in their late 50s, haven't let it go to their heads. Although they're sitting in their 14th-floor, glass-enclosed conference room, they look like they'd be just as comfortable in a teacher's lounge. Benn is unassuming in a green cardigan with, yes, leather patches on the elbows. Holback has a gentle way of speaking and a pale wisp of a mustache.

Diane Cho, the third principal of the firm, cofounded CBH in 1979 fresh from Cornell, along with another architect who has since left the firm. It was at Cornell that Cho also met Benn. (They later married.) Benn and Holback both joined the firm in 1983.

"Diane and I moved to Baltimore on a lark," says Benn, "but partially because we loved the historic character of the structures."

Holback is a native Baltimorean and MICA grad who shares Benn's love of Charm City's "great old stuff," an affinity he developed while salvaging materials from old buildings for his found art sculptures.

Like Benn, he appreciates the tales that the buildings tell. When work began on Camden Station, where the Sports Legends and Geppi's Entertainment museums are now located, it wasn't uncommon for people to stop and share stories about the important life events that started and ended with the trains.

"There was the man who told us about getting on at the station to leave for a military camp during World War II," says Holback. "Someone else told us that the station was where they left on their honeymoon."

It's this sentimental attachment that distinguishes CBH's approach. And unlike many of the literal, earnest practitioners in their industry, they have a sense of humor, too: They've created a presentation for conferences on "preservation through alcohol" that references their work on multiple brewery rehabs and the Whiskey Barrel building at AVAM.

And who can fault a guy who's honest about his pool skills?

When David Benn went to the auction of a belly-up dot-com outfit to look for a deal on some office furniture, he returned instead with a pool table that now lives in the office lounge.

"I had a client tell me he'd play me for our fee," says Holback. "I told him no way—If I lost, we'd all starve!"

After the development of Harborplace in the 1980s, planners rethought the future of Baltimore's waterfront.

And with the redevelopment in 1987 of Tindeco Wharf in partnership with Struever Bros., CBH put its indelible stamp on what Holback calls "The Gold Coast."

When it was built in 1914, the harborfront Tindeco building in Canton was the largest tin decorating plant in the world. But when Benn and Holback saw it in 1984, it felt almost haunted. Yet Benn recalls that you could wipe away the grime of neglect and see the potential in the wood floors, built to be as thick and sturdy as a butcher's block, and the enormous windows overlooking the waterfront.

"When we first built this, we couldn't get a restaurant to occupy the power plant because it was just too far out, too crazy," recalls Benn. Eventually, The Bay Café moved in and CBH moved next door to design the redevelopment of Canton Cove.

And like the other readaptive projects, an attachment grew between the architects and their brick charges.

Holback likes to tip over tin cans at flea markets to see if they're stamped "Tindeco" and takes some small keepsake object from every readaptive project he comes across, from small pieces of machinery or ornamental brick to interesting pieces of glass. (Benn proudly notes that his father's lunchbox was manufactured at Tindeco.)

"The thrill of it, from our standpoint, was finding these critical masses and this new character that begins to activate and transform an area," says Benn. "These projects anchored and gave people a new sense of what Canton could be."

Nowhere is this urban renewal capacity more striking than the American Brewery Building in Northeast Baltimore (not to be confused with another CBH project, the Canton's National Brewery building, known for the Natty Boh sign). The five-story historic building, with its dramatic, pagoda-like roof shapes and center tower, was built in 1887 and used by the American Brewery until 1973.

It's possible that fate drew CBH to the American Brewery project. As a kid growing up in Northwood, Holback remembers driving by the building, awestruck by its spooky, Munster's style. So when CBH's expertise was sought by Struever Bros. and its partner, the nonprofit organization Humanim, to redevelop the site into the nonprofit's new headquarters, Holback, in particular, was psyched.

"I loved this project," says Holback. "I wish we could find another just like it," he adds, with the wistfulness of a child anticipating an improbable Christmas gift.

In a way, CBH has become a victim of the success of adaptive reuse. Now that much of the waterfront has been redesigned, finding large-scale old projects in need of TLC is harder than it used to be.

But a new mission is keeping old Baltimore's reinvention alive—the green building movement.

You wouldn't know it to look at it, but the Natty Boh building is "green." For example, tanks collect rainwater from the roof that's used to flush the toilets. There are green and reflective roofs to reduce urban heat accumulation. The whole structure is encased in an insulated building envelope and uses low VOC materials.

Though sustainable design has become the new industry buzzword, it won't replace adaptive reuse. In fact, the two concepts are complementary.

"The best green thing you can do is keep these old structures," Holback explains. "All the embodied energy in the building would be lost and put into a landfill and then you would buy more brick or other materials that need to be made and shipped from somewhere else."

As the landmark projects are completed, CBH has started to look for the next generation of buildings to adapt.

"Things age," says Benn. "Now, we see buildings that are 30 or 40 years old and their mechanical systems are failing, they aren't efficient, their lighting isn't good—you can look out your window and see the next challenge."

Not to point a finger, but Harborplace is just one destination looking ripe for a facelift, he hints. Says Benn, "We have the challenge of making downtown as good as we can again." 

Issue date: February, 2011
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