Scott McDonald, Hedrich-Blessing
308-312, 300, Pratt St., W., Baltimore, Baltimore City
The Wilkens-Robins Building at 308-314 West Pratt Street is a five-story six-bay structure of common bond construction with a cast iron front. It is approximately 80’ tall, 50’ wide, and 110’ deep, and has a gently sloping roof. Stylistically its façade contains design elements of the North Italian Renaissance Revival including arched openings framed between columns and full entablatures for each story. Derived from the Roman Coliseum and from the architecture of Sansovio, it presents these elements in ornate form following the tradition of R.G. Hatfield’s famous iron building for the Baltimore Sun newspaper. A sculptured surface of rich relief, a dignified symmetry of parts and an expanse of oversized windows are the highlights of one of the few surviving cast-iron façades in Baltimore. The first story, has its original six entry bays. These are surmounted by transoms under flat arches and fronted by an arcade consisting of fluted iron columns and pilasters at center and at each side. Tuscan bases, bell capitals and composite abacuses with egg-and-dart molding embellish the slender columns. The entablature is dentilated and features a broad band of cabling on the projecting cornice. The extant molded iron jambs encased the original two-paneled, glazed double doors that have been modified in recent years. Rectangular projections finalize each side of the first story cornice as well as those of the upper stories. The second through fifth stories of the façade are also arcaded, providing space for 24 large arched, recessed windows---one of the design advantages of cast-iron construction. Early views of the building reveal that the original 2/2 lights were replaced by 4/4. The arches of the upper floors are semi-circular and the openings shorter than those of the first story. Originally the column capitals held ornate leaf decorations, but in the early 1950s the building was repainted and stripped of some of these details. The soffits of these arches are coffered and their spandrels are recessed. Molded jambs also enrich the glazed arcaded surface. Small, cabled cornices protrude and divide the upper stories. Seven leaf-decorated brackets support the boxed, dentiled roof cornice. The frieze is defined by a thick rope molding over the arcade of the fifth story and running the width of the building. Unusual quoins, representing alternating pieces of dressed and rough-hewn stone, define the sides of the façade.
The Wilkens-Robins Building is one of the few remaining cast-iron fronted buildings in the city of Baltimore and an excellent example of a technology of building in transition. By the 1870s the city had become an important center of cast-iron construction and several important foundries exported such architectural fronts across the country and around the world. Many were used in the expansion of the central business district here after the Civil War. The majority were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1904 which devastated the area east of Howard Street and the remaining ones have gradually been torn down. This building is also a fine illustration of the way in which formal aesthetic principles were translated into what was the world’s first industrialized, factory-produced building material.