Baltimore's central business district has constantly reinvented itself in response to changes in building technologies, business practices, and architectural styles. Originally,
detached houses that doubled as shops and offices lined the streets. In 1799, a city ordinance outlawed wooden buildings for fire safety reasons, prompting the construction of unbroken rows of three story brick buildings with large display windows and awnings. In 1852, Baltimore Street was touted as the City's "official promenade."
As commerce and industry expanded, the business district transformed itself again. In 1857, the Baltimore Sun noted: "The city of yesterday is not the city of today. The dingy edifices that for half a century have stood ...are one by one being removed, and in their places new and imposing fronts of brown stone or iron present themselves." The Sun Iron Building (1851) introduced cast-iron architecture to Baltimore and the nation. Its five-story cast-iron façade, iron post-and-beam construction, and sculptural detailing were copied in cities worldwide. Twenty-two new downtown Baltimore buildings incorporated cast iron into their construction within two years after it opened.
The Great Fire of 1904 decimated the central business district, forcing the next great transformation. By then, the skeletal steel-framed
system, the elevator, electricity, and advances in plumbing had ushered in the era of the high rise. Business practices had evolved as local firms merged with national corporations while office and manufacturing activities separated. With industrial buildings now relegated to the outskirts and office buildings dominating city centers, the skyscraper had become the icon of urban America. Though Baltimore's post-fire landscape included an eclectic mix of older and newer styles, high rises increasingly predominated. Modernism reigned during the mid-20th century, later giving way to ever-larger and taller buildings, now clad with a postmodern sensibility.
(Inscriptions under the images on the left) (Image 1) Kaminsky's Tavern, a wood frame gambrel roof house, was situated at Grant and Mercer Streets. Originally a one-story detached house, it was built around 1752. As the downtown area developed, the street was lowered and the stone foundation was added. This picture was taken around 1870 before the tavern was demolished.
(Image 2) This view of the Lovely Lane Methodist Meeting House by Thomas Coke Ruckle provides an early 19th century glimpse of downtown. Built around 1774 on what is now Redwood Street, the building hosted the first Baltimore conference of Methodists in 1776, which included free African Americans. In 1784, American Methodists gathered here to organize
their scattered churches into a single national body, giving birth to American Methodism.
(Image 3) Baltimore Street looking west from Calvert Street, 1850. During the first half of the 19th century, residences and businesses shared the same architectural styles and often the same buildings. Large storefront display windows and awnings helped differentiate shops from residences.
(Image 4) The Sun Iron Building (1851), southeast corner of Baltimore and South Streets. A local locomotive machinist fabricated the ornamental detailing, and local foundries forged the post and beams. By 1880, Baltimore's cast-iron building components were found in cities and towns throughout the country, including the columns, windows, and doors of the U.S. Capitol.
(Image 5) The Sun Iron Building and the News-American Building (both destroyed in the 1904 Fire) exemplified mid-19th century changes in architecture. Used strictly for commercial purposes, these structures were built on a much larger scale than residential Baltimore.
(Image 6) The Continental Trust Building, at 1 S. Calvert Street, is Baltimore's first steel-frame high rise. Designed by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, it was built in 1901. It once housed the Pinkerton Detective Agency, where novelist Dashiell Hammett worked as a private detective from 1915 to 1922. Local folklore suggests that the black birds above the building's entrance inspired Hammett's novel, The Maltese Falcon.