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Building a new campus downtown

October 15, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

During a recent interview, Mark Beck, director of capital planning for the University System of Maryland, was so upbeat about the progress of construction on the new USM center in downtown Hagerstown that I remarked on what a change it was from four years ago.

That's when a USM official whose name I didn't remember described the old Baldwin House complex as beset with structural problems that would make renovation difficult if not impossible.

"That was me," Beck said, adding that while "that building had a lot of problems, but the governor and the legislature gave us the dollars we needed to fix it."

The $13.3 million project will create a new USM campus (due to open in 2005) by renovating the Baldwin House complex, which includes a five-story brick hotel built in 1881, the former Routzahn's department store, an attached warehouse and the former Grand Piano furniture store's warehouse.

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But just because the project has gone smoothly doesn't mean it was without challenges, Beck said. When project plans called for demolition of a warehouse behind the complex, Beck said that the project team realized it provided a lot of support to the structures in front. To replace it, they built a new addition, with supports sunk into the bedrock below.

"In general terms, they pulled out everything they didn't need and put in a fairly hefty foundation," he said.

Inside, the ceiling supports that made the floors in the Routzahn building seem springy have been replaced.

"It used to be when you would walk in the Routzahn building it was like walking on a trampoline. Now you can feel the difference," he said.

With most of structural work done, Beck said the project team is now working on finishing up as much exterior work as possible before winter sets in.

"You've got to make hay while the sun shines, as anybody who builds in this area knows," he said.

"On the scaffolding, they're repairing and replacing terra cotta and replacing the windows. They're also repointing the brick and making sure that the existing roofing materials exposed to weather aren't leaking," he said.

Beck said that one of his top concerns in 1999 was that doing an historic renovation of the building would lead to time-consuming and expensive disputes over what would be done. That's hasn't been the case, he said, crediting officials of the Maryland Historical Trust for making everything go smoothly.

"We've just started to finalize finishes with the historic trust," he said.

Asked what he meant by finishes, he said that much of the building's interior has some very nice scagliola. It's plasterwork made to look like marble, sometimes colored with granite or marble dust.

"That's being restored. We have a couple of sections done. And we're looking at replacement moldings," Beck said.

One of the rooms inside has already been finished to give historical trust visitors and others a look at how the building interior might look when completed and to make sure the renovation is on the right track, Beck said.

"We put the room up as a kind of a sample and from the feedback we get, we'll be formulating the interior plan," Beck said.

All of this has been accomplished "on track, on schedule and on budget," said Beck, who said that when work began, the project team drew up a graph and a timeline for what should happen when. So far everything is "going swimmingly," he said.

I had hoped to speak to an official of the Maryland Historical Trust, but personnel at that agency said that to talk to the person Beck is working with, I must first talk to the Department of Communications.

After explaining that I only wanted to know how the project was proceeding and what the next steps would be, I was transferred back to a trust official. Not to a live person, unfortunately. Instead, his Voicemail informed me that he was away from his desk and would return my call. As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, no return call had been received.

That's unfortunate, because Beck said that part of his 1999 reservations about the renovation of the Baldwin complex stemmed from apprehension over the problems USM might face in working with the trust. To Beck's surprise, a good working relationship has developed, but hearing that story from the trust's side will have to wait.

It's a story that should be told, because even though studies have established that re-use and renovation are cheaper than new construction, many are reluctant to choose renovation because of the surprise factor.

What's the surprise factor? Years ago on a downtown renovation project, a developer showed me where he'd removed a wooden enclosure around what should have been a main beam holding up the building.

When the plywood was pealed off, the beam was there all right, but - surprise - instead of being tied into the foundation, it was just sitting on a couple of bricks on the floor. Without secured support, the developer said, the building might have fallen down in a high wind.

Fortunately, on this project, the university system has been spared any such surprises.

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