Aaron M. Levin
26-28, Howard St., S., Baltimore, Baltimore City
The Johnston Building is a five-story loft building constructed in 1880, located at the southwest corner of South Howard Street and Cider Alley in downtown Baltimore. The building reflects the influence of the Queen Anne style in its façade organization and detailing, incorporating brick, stone, and cast iron elements. The building is a double warehouse, divided lengthwise by a brick wall, thus providing space for separate tenants in each half. Contemporary news accounts refer to this detached structure as two warehouses. The repetitive nameplates at the top, and the cornice return on the north side, all designating it the "Johnston Buildings," plural, reinforce this idea. The Johnston Building is eight bays wide. The dividing wall is expressed on the exterior as a central pilaster. The materials of the polychromatic, richly detailed façade are red brick with stone trim on the upper four levels, and structural cast iron for the ground floor storefronts. The street level bays are defined by four engaged columns flanking the major pilasters at the corners and center of the building, and six free-standing ones. They are round, unfluted, and set on tall bases with partially chamfered corners. The capitals have an acanthus-leaf design topped by heavy, petal-like excresences. The columns continue a short way above these capitals, surrounded by rectangular casings with colonnettes, which are miniatures of the primary columns. They extend through the bases as well, one of which bears a casting mark: "Variety Iron Works, No. 4 Light St, Baltimore, Md." The building retains good architectural integrity. The storefront retains most of its important cast iron elements, and the upper floors are essentially unchanged.
The Johnston Building is significant as representing a cast iron storefront, multistory loft type building. The Johnston Building, and its fraternal twin to the north, the Rombro Building, are among the few double warehouses remaining in Baltimore. Their colorful and elaborate Victorian façades distinguish them among the city’s 19th century commercial structures. They represent an architectural use of cast iron---as storefront framing---of which relatively few examples remain. The Johnston and Rombro buildings appeared within a year of one another in 1880-1881, built by the same developer, the Johnston Brothers; designed by the same architect, Jackson C. Gott; and with their cast iron elements fabricated by the same foundry, the Variety Iron Works. Over the years they have housed wholesale companies dealing in tobacco, hats, shoes, clothing, and home and office furnishings. Some early occupants, such as Samuel Hecht, Jr. & Sons, later became significant retailers in Baltimore. Both structures have survived for more than a century with no reversible alterations. The developers, architect, and foundry were all closely identified with Baltimore.