Thursday, April 27, 2017

Baltimore CBH Architects bought by Quinn Evans, DC

In today's fast moving business environment an architecture firm that set up shop in Baltimore in 1979 is a legacy firm. I am talking about the studio that had its shingle out on 316 N. Charles Street when I first spotted it in 1986. In a storefront window it had a poster-board that said "Concerned Architecture". Its name then was Cho, Wilks & Benn, the abbreviation CWB conveniently identical to its earlier configuration as Cho, Wilks & Burns. As David Benn recalls it, Barbara Wilks, Diane Cho and he were all Cornell graduates who were attracted to Baltimore as the place where innovative and interesting urban stuff happened. The same motive  brought Bill Struever and his brother Fred were who settled here around the same time and would become CWB's first big client.
Diane Cho, Tim Duke Barbara Wilks and David Benn (right)
in a a picture of early  1980's

The principals at CWB were my age and their office was the one I liked most among those with which I had interviews before I came to the US back then. At the time CWB  was about to complete the Tindeco apartments in Canton, had done Grindall's Yard in Federal Hill and the shops at Charles Plaza.  I joined them for almost 7 years.
We are not just about making beautiful buildings. We believe in the power of design to transform our city, our neighborhood, our campus, our environment.(CBH website)
My first project was to work on the conversion of the former tin company next to the Tindeco apartments,  dubbed Canton Cove, both conversions were Struever projects, and both an innovative reuse of industrial buildings, new for Baltimore, and innovative even on a national scale. Those conversions still look good today, although what was once a daring outpost in an industrial wilderness, is now safely embedded in the comfortable setting of a gentrified Canton from which the rabble-rousers have long disappeared. Little reminds of the times when a swath of land had been cleared for a freeway here that then was famously defeated by those activists who fought the early urban struggles against displacement and destruction. In those days a railroad was still clunking down Boston Street, Baltimore was still largely a working class city and Ed Hale was still the owner of a trucking business on Clinton Street and not the banker and developer of the First Mariner tower that he would become later.
Canton Cove around 1989 

CWB diversified from Struever projects into other fields and clients: I worked on the design of Baltimore's one and only light rail line, a conversion of a defunct school (#148) into affordable housing just off North Avenue, the downtown Annapolis Sector Plan, and the Planned Unit Development for the Allied Signal site, enough to keep me busy; all projects which proved that CWB was, indeed, "concerned" and made a mark as creative architects and urban designers not only in Baltimore but across Maryland.

CWB became CBH when partner George Holback's H replaced Barbara Wilks' W which she took to New York City where she opened he own office W-Architecture in 1999.

Today's landmark projects include Clipper Mill, the Everyman, the Shakespeare Theater, the Humanim Building (American Brewery) and the School for the Arts expansion as examples of CBH's trademark rehabilitation and adaptive reuse design and also trailblazing new construction such as the affordable housing projects of the  Lillian Jones Apartments on Greenmount Avenue and the Gateway Apartments on North Avenue, or innovation projects such as Open Werks, a maker space. The Madison Park North project in Reservoir Hill just started construction, it will accommodate the West Baltimore Innovation Village facility in a large complex of new buildings replacing defunct housing known as murder mall.
A rendering of the the 1992 Allied Signal PUD

Tuesday's Business Journal reported that the architecture firm, which today resides with about 30 people at One Charles Center, will be acquired by the DC firm of Quinn Evans Architects (slogan: "We see a better world, where others see limits, we see possibilities". This is another acquisition in a long string of buy-outs, mergers and busts that began in earnest when Baltimore's flagship architecture legacy firm, RTKL, was sold to a Dutch company and followed by the 2009 shut-down of the 62 year old legacy firm CS&D.

CBH is #9 on BBJ's 2016 list of the 10 largest Baltimore Architecture firms based on local billings of $.8.9 million in 2015. The two first places are held by Hord Coplan Macht with $36.22 million and Ayers Saint Gross with $41.8 million of local billings. Both firms have branch offices elsewhere. Last fall the #10 firm on the list, Brown Craig and Turner bought out the slightly smaller but failing Development Design Group which had filed for bankruptcy.

Light Rail maintenance shop (Photo CWB)

QEA's purchase is not seen as a failure of the healthy and prosperous CWH but as a logical next step in a competitive market in which small and mid-size firm have an increasingly hard time with keeping up and maintaining all the resources necessary to run a modern firm. QEA has a similar repertoire as CBH, much preservation (DC's Eastern Market) and modern inserts such as the Ben Franklin Museum in Philly and also some theater work.

QEA, founded in 1984, is younger than CWB but much bigger. It had already expanded beyond its native DC before with branch offices in Ann Arbor, Detroit and Madison.
The Everyman Theater on Fayette Street (Photo: CBH)

With its 100 employees and based on billing the firm made the top 500 list of A&E firms in the US for the first time in 2016 (Rank #480). Larry Barr, the President and Principal said about his acquisition in an official statement on the company website:
“Cho Benn Holback is an ideal fit for Quinn Evans Architects in terms of staff, expertise, and portfolio. I have long admired the thoughtful and creative approach reflected in their
American Brewery renovation (Photo: CBH)
work—the caliber of design is consistently visionary and transformative. Projects like the Lillian Jones Apartments; the National Postal Museum; and Open Works, the state-of-the-art new maker space in Baltimore, are stand-outs for me. Our strengths, our studio cultures, and our aspirations as design firms are remarkably aligned.”
David Benn, his partners and the entire design team will remain in place in their current location. The Baltimore firm will operate under the expanded name Cho Benn Holback, a Quinn Evans Co.
Lillian Jones apartments (CBH)


Meanwhile, other cities best Baltimore in terms of a location quotient for architects with which Creative Class author Richard Florida came up with in 2014.

The highest concentration of architects occurs in Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, Washington DC, Boston, Raleigh, Portland and St Louis. But before we despair, on that list even NYC sits only on rank 10. It would be nice if a new generation of creative founders like Cho, Wilks and Benn would once again set up shop in
Eastern Market, DC (photo: Quinn-Evans Architects)
Baltimore because this is the place where it happens. There are some modest signs that this is happening in the arts, graphic and industrial design and IT.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA




Baltimore: In the middle field for density of architects