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To the Point
The adapted landscape of a former Baltimore factory stays true to its sudsy past.
By Allen Freeman

Take a developer focused on inner cities—a company led by someone with a talent for finding abandoned industrial sites and turning them into gold. Add landscape architects with open minds and respect for history. If you’re lucky, you’ll get something as fine as Tide Point, the 15-acre landscaped portion of an old Baltimore soap factory adapted into an office complex. Old/new Tide Point isn’t self-conscious in an arty sense, but it is self-aware, retaining its hardscaped industrial character while taking advantage of one of Charm City’s best harbor views. Its landscape architects were Barbara Wilks, ASLA, and Alex Washburn of W Architecture + Landscape Architecture, New York City; their client was Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, a national leader among developers specializing in the use of federal historic tax credits.

Copyright Janic E Rettaliata

“We approached the project believing that discovery requires only new eyes to see,” Washburn says. Ultimately, the landscape architects, backed by their client Bill Struever, president of the development firm and a harbor and inner-city advocate, reclaimed a piece of the urban waterfront, took down fences, and opened the site for public use. Struever Bros. earned a 2001 Maryland Smart Growth Award, and the landscape architecture team won a 2003 ASLA design merit award. Struever acknowledges the designers’ challenges, including historic certification, state of Maryland Chesapeake Bay critical areas legislation, community concerns, adequate parking, and a tight budget. “Yet they overcame these hurdles and turned them into assets,” he says.

Named for the most prominent of the handful of household products that Procter & Gamble (P&G) manufactured there for more than 60 years, Tide Point is directly across the Inner Harbor from Fells Point, once the city’s shipbuilding center and now a cobblestoned tourist attraction. Also across the harbor and to the west are Harborplace and the National Aquarium, the 1980s developments credited with reviving downtown Baltimore. Stretching south from Tide Point is Locust Point, a neighborhood of row houses that is home to tight-knit South Baltimore families of German descent. Prior to World War I, the Locust Point Immigration Arrival Center next to Fort McHenry (today a Naval Reserve Training Center) was second to Ellis Island in arrivals to America’s shores, and Baltimore’s sister-city ties with Bremen made it a primary point of entry for German immigrants. Many of them settled in Locust Point and worked for P&G.

The soap-maker’s history at Locust Point began in 1929 when P&G constructed a series of sturdy, brick-faced structures and erected more than 100 large, cylindrical storage tanks. Shoehorned among the factories, the tanks stored materials brought in on ships and railroad cars. Pipes carried the ingredients into the factories, named for various household products. The makings of Dawn and Joy were mixed and bottled here, for instance, and other ingredients were granulated and boxed as Tide or Cascade or pumped with air and chopped into bars of floating Ivory soap. In the circa-1950 Tide Building, the last to be built, workers mixed surfactants and enzymes and blew the blend into a tower where it drifted back down as Tide granules. Packaged P&G products left the factories on railroad cars parked on a pair of trestles extending along the east and west flanks of the property. The land slopes to the harbor, so the trestles ended about a story above the water.

In 1994 P&G closed its Locust Point factory complex and sold it to a Korean company that intended to make sake. A late-1990s slump in the Asian economy scotched that plan. Instead, Struever Bros. purchased the property in 1998, successfully nominated it for the National Register, which made it eligible for federal tax credits, and adapted the five main buildings. The developer spent a reported $1.2 million on brownfield remediation efforts, ridding the structures of lead paint and asbestos and removing most of the freestanding tanks.

Struever Bros. commissioned W Architecture + Landscape Architecture in 1999, five years after P&G’s departure. The buildings were starting to look run-down, the trestles were rusting, and the harbor bulkheads were crumbling. By then, Struever Bros. had engaged architects, Design Collaborative of Baltimore, who’d made assumptions about the industrial landscape, including what to remove and where to put employee parking. Slated for demolition were all of the tanks, their concrete bases, and the railroad trestles.

After their initial site review and during the budgeting process, Wilks and Washburn proposed keeping some of the tanks, many of the round bases, and the railroad trestles. Less demolition would save money, they reasoned, while retaining more of the site’s industrial heritage. They successfully squelched plans for a road that would have encircled the property, cutting off the buildings from the water, and suggested putting a restaurant atop the east trestle, a project not yet realized. Instead of clearing the area east of the buildings, where many of the tanks were placed, for a parking lot, Struever commissioned a sculptor to create large installation art using the tank bases. And then Struever came up with the idea of retaining the west trestle and enclosing its supporting structure, which yielded “some really cool office space”—Washburn’s words—between the massive concrete footings.

The total Tide Point renovation produced 400,000 square feet of office space, with the staff of Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse’s headquarters, about 130 workers, occupying part of the Joy Building, next to which remains a small collection of tanks. Wilks and Washburn cleaned up the areas around the five closely spaced buildings, inserting a bit of circulation logic where formerly none was required, making the site accessible to people with disabilities, and tucking parking spaces into relatively inconspicuous places. They’ve proposed new buildings at the four corners of the site, one of which, a restaurant at the southeast corner, has been built. So far, the entire south edge of Tide Point remains a ragged tangle of railroad tracks and access roads. The city plans to consolidate the rails and realign the roadway, so only temporary improvements have been made. To those who arrive by car, Tide Point lacks identity and blurs confusingly into South Baltimore’s fragmented industrial landscape.

The north edge, however, is resolved into a low-key showplace. For ecological reasons, Struever wanted to disturb the mucky floor of the harbor as little as possible, so Wilks and Washburn built a wood-plank promenade over the bulkheads and angled it into the harbor. Struever also wanted a big fountain before realizing how expensive it would be. So instead of a water feature, Wilks and Washburn installed a fog feature—linear, uplighted, made of off-the-shelf components, and set under the promenade. On hot, dry days, misters cool the microclimate, and at night they make the lights, covered with different colors of gels, visible across the harbor. The lights are orange when the Orioles take a home game, purple when the Ravens win, and red, white, and blue for the Fourth. Baltimore’s Water Taxi and Seaport Taxi services, which go to Harborplace, Fells Point, and other locations, pull up there, and the promenade and its pump house can be set up and leased for special events (not including weddings).

Most days and evenings, though, the long empty boardwalk, scattered with Adirondack chairs, is quiet, and Charm City’s hubbub recedes.

Landscape architect: W Architecture + Landscape Architecture, LLC, Barbara Wilks, ASLA, and Alex Washburn, principals.
Developer/contractor: Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, Inc.
Civil/structural engineers: Whitman Requart & Associates, LLP.
Mechanical/electrical engineers: Spears/Votta & Associates, LLP.
Lighting: Tigue Lighting.

Accentuating the Point

There was a kind of elegance to it: these discs that seemed to saunter down toward the water,” says Alex Castro. A sculptor and architect, Castro was asked to install a work of art on one portion of Tide Point, a landscape that was still littered with broken remnants of concrete bases for industrial storage tanks. Amid the chaos, though, he detected order—a stepping down toward the water—and his overriding plan was to amplify that quality while keeping a sense of ruins.

Castro, students from the Maryland Institute of Art, some of his friends, and other volunteers spent six months capping the ragged tops of 26 large discs and hand applying subtle lines with hammer drills. The lines inscribed on the surfaces of the discs focus on a single spot that for Castro became the point of Tide Point, a location that juts out most prominently into the harbor. He placed a beacon there, a lighted cone, and from it struck segments of one degree of an arc. Where each degree crossed a disc, he had a line scored in the disc’s surface. If you stand on one of the highest discs, look at your feet, and scan the scored discs down the site, your eyes focus on the point.

That phase of the installation is done. Still to be installed are trees, a linear pool, a pergola to soften the east edge of the landscape, and water cascades with reflecting pools and water vegetation around the concrete discs. When the pools are filled, the discs should read as giant lily pads.

Eventually, the installation will accommodate material relating to Locust Point as an immigration station. Even with the immigration angle, which will probably have a measure of didacticism, Castro hopes his industrial garden will remain reflective.

Tide Point Celebrates the History of the Site
Claudia Goetz Phillips, ASLA, Graduate Program in Landscape Architecture, Moran State University

We generally talk of brownfield redevelopment, adaptive reuse, and urban renewal as positive and progressive actions. In the case of Tide Point, this redevelopment terminology is insufficient to describe what has happened here. At Tide Point, the melding of the architectural renovations with the landscape architectural design has created an entirely different type of place. It is analogous to what Julie Bargmann describes as a place that actually constructs contemporary, urban spaces—in this instance, a postindustrial landscape that is both traditional and postmodern.

The landscape architectural design work of W Architecture + Landscape Architecture does not conceal the previous industrial site; instead it celebrates both its past usage and its current industrial surroundings. The plan view of the overall design is contemporary, akin to Peter Walker’s work, while the construction makes us of a mixture of both old and new industrial materials. New and refurbished concrete and stone forms of various sizes and functions reference the past while emulating the working industrial waterfront structures that surround the site. Plants are allowed to climb an unused stairway as if the stairway were abandoned, but the plantings are neatly maintained to show the designer’s hand and intent. A well-worn pump now serves as a fountain in a small wetland pond. Former machine parts and industrial pieces have now become bench and trash receptacle components. Anodized or rusted steel riprap is juxtaposed with dazzling white crushed stone. While many of these design elements can be found elsewhere, rarely have they been integrated into a contemporary design scheme this successfully.

Two apparent oversights are noteworthy. In plan, the metal grating (used to camouflage lighting, steam vents, and other utilities) defines a strong central axis through the middle of the wood deck/promenade and two concrete paver areas. Unfortunately, it appears as though the wood deck planking and concrete pavers were laid first and the metal grating sections were adjusted to fit the uneven spaces left for their insertion. Metal wants to be straight, whereas wood is flexible and naturally uneven, and concrete pavers are produced to vary slightly in size and shape. Therefore, the metal grating should have been installed first to enhance the designer’s intent of a strong central axis. In addition, there needs to be more tree canopy or constructed cover from the noonday sun. While many Tide Point employees enjoy their lunches soaking up the sun on the deck/promenade, many sit against the buildings to avoid the very bright sunlight. However, no seating is available in this area, so they have to sit on the ground. There are two plantings of small ornamental trees with limited seating that provide dappled shade, but this is insufficient for those wanting to enjoy the out-of-doors and water views without being overly exposed to the sun’s rays.

Overall, the Tide Point landscape has much to offer its employees, visitors, and travelers who come by car, water taxi, kayak, bicycle, or foot. How many places of employment can boast that they offer a waterfront view, complete with hammocks and Adirondack chairs, where workers can eat lunch and take a break while gazing idly at the sailboats and ships going by?

Public/Private Interests Create Conflicts, Sort Themselves Out
George Hazelrigg, Department of Landscape Architecture, Virginia Tech

An abandoned soap factory’s past has been effectively connected to Baltimore’s future at Tide Point. High-tech firms, a day care center, educational facilities, and an athletic club now occupy the factory’s five original brick buildings. The renovated buildings, the surviving equipment and fixtures, and a ground plane of concrete, asphalt, and gravel offer effective reminders of the site’s industrial history. Unlike some “restored” waterfront projects, including nearby Harborplace, Tide Point doesn’t need props and symbolism to evoke its past. While plantings will mature and some weathering will occur, this is also a tidy site not meant to rust or crack. Yet there is little feeling of artificiality, no sense of contrivance.

Circulation within the 15-acre site is comfortable. The visitor is drawn to the water, yet there are plenty of reasons to linger and explore the variety of spaces that have been so effectively created through a rich mix of simple plantings and hardscape design. An employee quietly sits reading on a modernist bench in a garden between two buildings; another talks on his cell phone in one of several entrance gardens. Several others take a lunch break within the beginnings of a tree grove adjacent to an industrial garden of tank bases and whimsical spheres and cones. A father and child relax in the shade of a building. Experiential, calm, enjoyable.

Closer to the water, a slightly elevated boardwalk encourages casual relaxation and serves as a platform for taking in the splendid harbor views. The deck’s extensive edge, uncomplicated without a railing, makes the site and water appear seamless. Scattered along the walkway are Adirondack-style chairs, hammocks, and wood benches. Additional wood and concrete benches rest behind the walk. Despite 90-degree heat, individuals and small groups occupy all the seating areas during lunchtime. A grove of young locust trees is beginning to provide shade for those less anxious to brave the hot midday sun. (My initial impulse to want more trees wanes when I see how effectively the clean lines and neat plantings tie together the site’s industrial heritage and its contemporary redefinition.) A narrow linear grate spans the walkway’s length, covering up-lights and temperature-activated fog emitters that provide cooling relief and delightful visual interludes. Adjacent water taxis offer recreational tours of the harbor for visitors and a means of commuting for a number of Tide Point employees.

In the evening, with the employees at Tide Point gone, other users populate the site. A young lady and her dog share a chair. Friends in hammocks quietly talk. Two lovers sit at the walkway’s edge, feet dangling. Scattered along the water are individuals fishing. An elderly couple living nearby strolls down to enjoy a waterfront until recently closed to the public. Other people arrive and leave, wandering or sitting, enjoying the remarkable nighttime harbor views that stretch as far as Harborplace in the distance. A historic ship crammed with passengers glides past, calypso music floating across the water, a pause from the soft musical strains coming from the factory buildings.

Tide Point’s neighbors provide dramatic backdrop to the conversation between past and future that is now engaged. Huge bulk liquid storage tanks flank one side; a large freighter offloading at the Domino sugar docks flanks the other. Abandoned rail tracks announce arrival at the site.

Behind Tide Point lies the historic Locust Point neighborhood of modest, working-class row houses. For decades, it managed to stand apart, near the city’s edge, separated by water from the downtown and north shore neighborhoods. While some exodus has occurred as local factories and shipyards have fallen on hard times, Locust Point basically remains the close-knit community originally built by immigrants and their descendants during the past century. Now change is in the air. Closed plants like Tide Point have become attractive candidates for rehabilitation. As new condos and luxury town houses spring up, longtime residents are feeling uneasy about what impacts this heightened commercial interest and constructive activity will have on their hitherto “affordable” community.

What are the potential conflicts when a privately owned campus opens its waterfront to the public 24 hours a day? Neighborhood kids on bikes are told they can’t ride on the site due to property and safety issues, and while waterfront visits by local residents are welcomed, there is concern over potential drinking and rowdiness by younger adult residents. Tide Point security personnel stand ready to alert local police to any signs of trouble.

Public participation will continue to grow as Tide Point is discovered. Plans call for light, modern structures to anchor the site’s four corners, offering much-needed public amenities for employees and visitors alike. How the public interests sort out over time may have as much to say about Tide Point’s future as the private ones.

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