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Baltimore Business Journal: Creative, Modern Expressions Abound at Union Wharf in Fells Point

August 16, 2013

Published in the Baltimore Business Journal

In our city of row houses, until recently, apartment buildings were the exception.

Among them, the Marlborough on Eutaw Place was the historic gold standard; Mies van der Rohe’s Highfield House on North Charles Street was the modern one. The standard for adaptive reuse was set by Tindeco Wharf in Canton.

With household sizes getting smaller and young people trending toward cities, urban living is changing. These urban dwellers present new architectural challenges, including the demand for integrated parking.

Symphony Center in Midtown and Avalon Centerpoint downtown responded with rather mundane wraps of heavy masonry walls and repetitive punched-out windows camouflaging the garages. Silo Point in Locust Point merged parking with old grain silos, the Zenith near Camden Yards has a curved full-glass facade, seen before only on commercial buildings.

The advent of Bozzuto Group President Toby Bozzutto on the Baltimore apartment scene was like an architect’s dream. Educated in the arts, teaching design at Harvard, and with a peer’s keen understanding of the current generation of urbanistas, he was ready to bring high-end New York-style residential design aspirations not only to his company, but to Charm City.

Not even located in one of the red-hot areas along the water, Bozzuto’s first realization was the Fitzgerald in Midtown. His latest entry is Union Wharf at the Fells Point waterfront.

Union Wharf takes the design principles of the Fitzgerald to new heights, especially notable in the spacious and extremely well-appointed tenant service areas that are the calling card of both projects.

Facing Wolfe Street, Union Wharf, with its red brick piers and deep recesses, looks for a moment as if it had always been there, exactly what architect Chris Harvey, design director at Hord Coplan Macht, wanted to achieve.

“We wanted to be good neighbors,” he said.

Only a maze of tracks on Wolfe Street still reminds us of the industrial past. The site, now luxury territory, was in its last incarnation nothing more than a concrete mixing plant.

In favor of a balanced street, Union Wharf’s front respectfully picks up the main datum line of the smallish assortment of historic buildings across the street. In response to the prevailing Fells Point building material, the new apartments are largely clad in red brick as well.

The fifth floor and small areas of the fourth have dark, corrugated steel faces, but are modestly set back from the view. Instead of a layer cake, which often results from repeated setbacks, we get a clean, four-story main structure with a penthouse top and a three-story suggested arcade pushing out in front.

This building is not masquerading as historic. The large windows, the recessed wood plank siding, the exposed steel beams lintels are all decidedly modern expressions.

But instead of screaming at the observer, the modernist touches and the rigueur of the strictly modulated Wolfe Street facade are dispensed in small, easily digestible doses, making the cobblestone street almost cozy, without any fake vintage accessories.

The arcade concept allowed the designer to keep the ramps and stairs needed to reach the flood-safe entry level concealed from the main view, while the piers meet the sidewalk in the orderly succession of industrial archetypes that loosely served as the model for this design.

The “wow” effect sets in when one enters the lobby. Here, nothing is historic except for some reclaimed materials such as still-stained wood from old horse stables. An eclectic assortment of materials — from polished concrete, steel wall panels, ornate Guitierrez fabricated steel ceiling panels, to slate walls, combined with all types of modern furniture — create a comfortable chic, which glows in artfully composed lighting concepts. In this stylish lobby the wide gas fireplace behind glass, just yesterday still an innovation, almost looks trite.

Creative touches are everywhere, from the skewed rectangle of the swimming pool suggesting extra length, to the palisade of real birch trunks alongside the pool (the work of landscape architecture firm Mahan Rykiel Associates Inc.), to the translucent panels allowing daylight to squeeze in between the garage and the common spaces and the breathtakingly well appointed entertainment spaces overlooking the water.

Maybe it is no surprise, then, that finishes and design of this caliber couldn’t be quite kept on this high level throughout. The apartments benefit from large floor-to-ceiling windows and many outdoor spaces, from balconies to decks and courtyards. The little letdown that creeps up when entering an apartment, coming from the superb amenity floor, can easily be avoided by entering straight from the garage, where the car can conveniently be parked on the same level.

But people who live in Union Wharf have almost everything they need inside the resort-like complex, or immediately around it, right there in Fells Point. They might never wish to use that car.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA, president of ArchPlan Inc. in Baltimore, reviews architecture for the Baltimore Business Journal.