Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The recreated Rec Pier in Fells Point

Of the many pier and wharf buildings in Fells Point, the red-brick, Georgian Revival-style City Recreation Pier building at 1715 Thames Street, built in 1914, is the grandest. Its features include an elegant second-floor colonnade and a wide-arched passageway connecting Thames Street with the pier behind it. Nearly a century ago, Fells Point residents gathered on the pier for swimming and sunbathing, and in the ballroom behind the colonnade for evening dances. (Trust for Architectural Easements 2009)
The Rec Pier on the ribbon cutting day for the Pendry Hotel (Photo: Philipsen)
When developer Bill Struever converted the old soap factory into the tech hub of Tide Point, the one frill he allowed himself was "the largest mister north of Orlando" installed on the front porch of the compound along the water. One could see it change colors from Fells Point. When Kevin Plank bought Tide Point he looked the other direction and he didn't like the decrepit Recreation Pier marring the otherwise picture perfect view across the water.

In the 30 years I have lived in the area, I have never seen the Recreation Pier in Baltimore do anything other than being a film location, receive a plaque for it, get  new light bulbs to once again spell out its name across the water and be the locale of much grousing over developer Joe Clarke's various design concepts and team configurations, none ever got off the ground.
Baltimore developer J. Joseph Clarke needs state and federal historic tax credits to transform the Fells Point Recreation Pier into a swanky, European-style, boutique hotel. BBJ  1995.
The Fells Point Recreation Pier is one of the state's most endangered sites. (Preservation Maryland 2010)
Clarke and equity partner H&S Properties Development Corp. have a deal in place to build an Aloft brand hotel with about 125 rooms. BBJ 2012
A development group backed by Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank could breathe new life into a stalled plan to transform the landmark and long-vacant Recreation Pier in Fells Point into a luxury hotel. (Baltimore SUN 2014)
Large equipment drives new piles in July 2015 (photo: Philipsen)
Plank made it happen. In record time a very complicated project that once floated on rotting piles got completed and the press release for the event comes from Orange County, Ca., home of the new aspiring group of Montage hotels.

Designed by Beatty Harvey Coco (exterior) and Patrick Sutton (interior), the development team of Sagamore and Montage International took Joseph Clarke's 1995 idea of a swanky hotel and turned into reality with almost the same number of rooms. The similarity isn't too surprising, given that Beatty Harvey was once associated with Fillat architects, who prepared the first concepts for the Pier. Neither Clarke nor Fillat remained as the current development and design team. Patrick Sutton is also the architect for Plank's 35,000sqft Baltimore County home and he pulled off a really astonishing job in making this hotel shine, from the first floor restaurant and whiskey bar all the way to the bedrooms overlooking water on all sides.
"We tell stories for a living — we tell great stories and we build products to support those stories. When [visitors] come here, I want them to have a proper hotel to stay at. When they come and visit, I want them to see a proper campus. I want them to see unique things we have like the distillery. I just want to be involved in projects that are great and build things that have people go 'wow.' One of my passions in life is I love blowing people's minds." (Kevin Plank as quoted in the BBJ in March 2015)
When the ribbon was cut on Tuesday, though, Kevin Plank was a no-show and left it to his brother Scott, with his development company Warhorse also a partner, to the Governor, the Mayor and half her cabinet to celebrate. Scott Plank echoed his brother Kevin's sentiments when he said that one often hears this is the best in Baltimore or the best in Maryland but that he thinks it "should be the best period".  Scott Plank explained his brother's absence with "he is more of a working guy" when asked about his whereabouts.
Views from the hotel rooms looking back at Thames Street (photo: Philipsen)

Having an active hotel in Fells Point is surely better than a ruin that is slowly sinking into the Patapsco. It employs 200 people and the Governor stressed that "75% come from Baltimore". There will be certainly those who who worry about gentrification or are uneasy and the growing corporate power of Under Armour which will also own the water taxi service connecting the Pendry Hotel and the UA headquarters.

Far from being posh, the Recreation Pier was once a public facility, the public could walk through the wide arch and cars and trucks could drive out on the pier. The swimming pool there then was open to the public not reserved for hotel guests who pay a minimum of $350 a night. The pier and ballroom were a modest reference to famous British seaside towns and their public piers and event spaces in Brighton and Bournemouth. Being Baltimore, the Pier was functional, in spite of a over 4,565 square foot ballroom to which Sutton added murals depicting the war of 1812 and the British bombardment of Fort McHenry on the outside wall. Even as late as this century the pier was the berth for the pilot tugboats guiding large vessels up to the Port of Baltimore. During the heydays of immigration it served as a point of entry to mostly European immigrants with a ferry connecting the Locust Point Dock (from where immigrants could take a train to travel on) and the Fells Point Pier. The vacant Rec Pier was a property of the Mayor and City Council and had been offered through requests for proposals.
Ribbon cutting with Governor and Mayor
(photo: Philipsen)

The architects remained very conscious of the past, in part because they used a $17 million historic tax credit on the $60 million project. "We spent $11 million to get it", quipped Patrick Sutton when I talked with him including in his calculation the cost for the pile replacement. The rooms are supposed to convey the feeling of being on the bridge of a ship and the nautical feel is certainly strong in whiskey bar with its low arched wood slat ceiling. Closing the arched entry to the pier by making it a window for the restaurant brought initially objections from preservationists. The architects responded by setting the facade a full bay back leaving a sense of openness. The raised restaurant floor now sitting above the street level requires a somewhat awkward sideways approach to the reception and restaurant through a sloped hallway which makes the arrival on the first floor where it opens up and reveals the cast iron gallery especially impressive. Montage CEO Alan Fuerstman said the "building belongs to the community". Scott Plank pointed out that over 30 events had been already booked for the ballroom. The projects has no parking on its own, a revolutionary aspect for Baltimore where everybody always talks about parking first.

The hotel with its "floating" guestrooms and its unique history and design sets a new standard for hospitality architecture, not only for Baltimore or Maryland, but globally. Not an easy feat in the age of boutique hotels outdoing each other in search of the authenticity that international travel has otherwise long left behind.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated

For more details and explanations by Patrick Sutton see this SUN article

Picture gallery (All photos: Klaus Philipsen)

Hotel rooms form a courtyard 

Precedent: English sea-bath piers
Living like a king: bathroom in the suite (photo: Philipsen)
Room with a view


Pool in back

Courtyard with sclupture

One of the cannons found under the piers when new piles were set

Poolhouse and new construction at HarborPoint in the background


The new Chop House restaurant 

Whiskey bar cannon Room serving Sagamore rye whiskey
The view of Thames Street from the restaurant (photo: Philipsen)