|By Edward Gunts, The Baltimore
SunMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 17, 2008 - The new Hilton Baltimore Convention Center Hotel has been described as the city's first true "convention hotel," in part because it's the first one connected by enclosed sky bridges to Baltimore's 29-year-old convention center. But that's not the only feature that sets it apart from other downtown hotels.
The $301 million, 19-story hotel also stands one block from Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the cherished ballpark built in 1992 whose success triggered the nationwide back-to-the-city stadium-building movement. Many of the hotel's guest rooms and meeting spaces directly face the open seating bowl, which rivals the Inner Harbor as a visual amenity.
The hotel's proximity to these busy destinations will make it a gateway to Baltimore for thousands and give it a marketing edge no other hotel enjoys. But it also presented a nearly impossible challenge for the architects, who had to fit a large building into a tight and scrutinized site while adhering to a myriad of urban constraints.
Since baseball season began, Orioles fans have been voicing opinions about what they see of the hotel from the stands. Starting Friday, when the hotel opens, visitors and guests will have a chance to see what it looks like inside.
What they'll find is a building that will delight or infuriate, depending on one's perspective. Ultimately, the hotel is likely to rekindle an old debate that Baltimore planners never seem to resolve: How much building can you pack into one location before you begin to destroy the very place you wanted to strengthen?
The city-owned hotel occupies two blocks that were previously surface parking lots for the ballpark. They are just west of the convention center and just north of Oriole Park and historic Camden Station, home to two museums. The land is bounded by Pratt, Howard, Camden and Paca streets.
As designed by RTKL Associates, with Raymond Peloquin as vice president-in-charge and Dan Freed as project designer, the hotel looks like two buildings separated by Eutaw Street, but it's actually one connected structure sitting atop underground parking.
Although the designers had two city blocks to work with, they chose to put the bulk of the hotel on the western block and use the eastern block for meeting rooms, a restaurant and park.
RTKL's design grew out of extensive talks about the hotel's impact on its surroundings. Although the hotel's front door is on Pratt Street and one of the sky bridges had to span the light rail line along Howard Street, one of the most sensitive aspects of the design is the view from Oriole Park, because most of its seats face the hotel.
Since the ballpark opened in 1992, patrons have enjoyed a clear view of Baltimore's skyline from most seats because the two city lots were undeveloped. When city leaders decided to build the hotel, it meant the ballpark would lose some of its skyline views.
The architects tried to be sensitive about the views from the park and studied a variety of configurations before arriving at their final design. According to Freed, team members considered building guest rooms on both blocks, but decided that would obscure even more of the skyline and possibly dwarf Camden Station. As a result, they put all the guest rooms on the western block. They also considered designing a taller and more slender tower for the guest rooms, but the height was restricted because of the flight patterns of emergency helicopters heading to the nearby R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center.
Ultimately, they decided on an L-shaped tower, with a 19-story wing along Pratt Street and a 14-story tower along Eutaw Street, so the structure's thin side would face the ballpark.
In selecting a metal surface for the upper levels, Freed said, the architects drew inspiration from Baltimore's industrial harbor. The base was clad in brick to echo Oriole Park, as well as Camden Station and the old B&O Warehouse.
This plan accommodates all of the rooms that hotel operators needed, but it came at a price. The decision to make the guest tower so long and tall created a barrier to those views from much of the ballpark. From many seats, it is no longer possible to see the Bromo Seltzer Tower, the Bank of America tower or other city landmarks. The hotel's metal skin underscores the impression that the hotel is an alien presence, since it's a different material from the brick on the B&O Warehouse and Camden Station.
Freed said the designers pushed the hotel tower as far toward Pratt Street as possible to give the ballpark more breathing space. As a result, the hotel is less obtrusive than it could have been.
As important as all this may be to Orioles fans and others in the region, some out-of-town guests who will stay at the Hilton won't necessarily come to see a ballgame or gaze at the skyline. They will come, many hope, to attend meetings at the Convention Center or the hotel, and they will want a convenient and comfortable place to stay. For them, the hotel should work well. Public areas are bright, spacious and easy to navigate. It is possible to walk from every guest room to the Convention Center without setting foot outdoors.
The interior design, by Daroff Design Inc., celebrates Baltimore in a variety of ways. Because the hotel is several blocks from the Inner Harbor, Daroff couldn't capitalize on harbor views as many downtown hotels do. Instead, recognizing that the building is city-owned, the designers used Baltimore as a theme, selecting a color palette of blues and earth tones inspired by the harbor and its wetlands. Public spaces flow into each other, imparting a sense of motion and fluidity. Large windows let in plenty of natural light while providing views of the city that can help people get oriented. Meeting rooms are named after famous Baltimoreans, and artwork has been created by local contemporary artists.
"We feel that we have created a place that is the essence of Baltimore and could be nowhere else but Baltimore," Freed said.
On the upper levels, guest rooms range from singles to large suites. All are attractive, with flat-screen TVs and other creature comforts conventiongoers might expect.
The architects' decision to put all the guest rooms on the western block means that the building on the eastern block functions as a transitional structure between the hotel and convention center. From some vantage points, it's hard to tell whether it's part of the convention center or the hotel. The sky bridges, too, contain elements, such as diagonal trusses, that recall the convention center.
Some of the hotel's most impressive features are the views. The architects provide views of Camden Yards from every possible angle. On the 14-story wing, the south end of each floor contains a hospitality suite with a balcony that opens out to the ballpark. Even the fourth-floor gym offers panoramic views of the field. Treadmills lined up along windows seem as if they're an extension of the centerfield seats. It's a novel way to see the ballpark and exercise at the same time.
"We've opened it up as much as we can," Freed said. "I don't think we knew how spectacular some of the views would be."
There is a fascinating irony to the relationship between the hotel and its neighbor. On the one hand, the hotel honors the ballpark in the way it offers such loving views of it. Those views will be its claim to fame. On the other hand, the hotel's looming presence closes in the ballpark and eliminates part of what made Camden Yards such a magical setting.
It would be easy to say the city should have held out for a better design solution. But the ballpark's fate was sealed when city leaders chose to use the city-owned lots to build such a bulky structure.
No one is likely to stop going to baseball games because of the hotel, they must have reasoned, but meeting planners will refrain from bringing large groups to Baltimore if the city doesn't have a convention hotel.
It wasn't an easy choice, but a public policy decision had to be made. The public will let it be known soon enough whether it was a wise one.
Hotel facts -- The Hilton Baltimore Convention Center Hotel contains 757 guest rooms, 60,000 square feet of meeting and ballroom space, including the 25,000-square-foot Francis Scott Key Grand Ballroom and 15,000-square-foot Billie Holiday Junior Ballroom, retail and restaurant spaces, and 550 parking spaces.
-- The west building, 401 W. Pratt St., has a four-story base with public meeting rooms, parking, the entrance lobby and other common spaces. Above the base is a tower containing guest rooms.
-- The L-shaped tower has an east-west leg parallel to Pratt Street that rises 19 stories, a north-south leg parallel to Eutaw Street that rises 14 stories, and elevators and stairs where the legs meet. The base is clad in brick similar to the brick at Oriole Park. The upper levels are clad in metal panels in two shades, white and silver. -- The east building rises three stories and is clad in brick and glass. On the development's east side, a green space serves as a forecourt to Camden Station.
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