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Baltimore tower finds new life as a cultural center

BALTIMORE – The illuminated, 51-foot steel replica of a blue Bromo-Seltzer bottle, topped by a crown, no longer rotates on the top of this iconic landmark, advertising the effervescent granules used to alleviate stomachaches, acid indigestion and, allegedly, hangovers.

The eye-catching advertisement came down in 1936, after the 17-ton bottle’s weight started to crack the building’s facade. Also gone is the once-popular fizzy drug itself, which stopped production in 2008 after several changes of ownership.

But the slender, 289-foot-tall Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower, modeled after the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy, and built adjacent to the company’s plant when it entered this city’s skyline in 1911, has found new life as a cultural beehive and tourism destination after falling on hard times.

The city-owned building was renovated in 2008 by the Baltimore Office of Promotions & the Arts into 30 artists’ studios, and became the cornerstone for the Bromo Arts District here on the west side of downtown, the city’s third and newest cultural district.

Popular Saturday tours introduce visitors to chemist and marketing whiz Isaac Emerson, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, and his product Bromo-Seltzer, which he wanted to advertise on a tall building similar to other companies such as the Woolworth Building in New York City and the Guaranty Building in Buffalo.

The building was built as a commercial office building, but the spaces proved impractical. Two-thirds of each floor are taken up by stairs, elevator and lobby, leaving barely 500 square feet. For that reason, bathrooms were located every third floor.

After a power-point presentation, the tour takes people to the yellow-brick building’s 15th floor, riding the original manually driven Otis Elevator. There, they get a peek inside the clock works behind the four-dial gravity clock – the largest in the world when they were built – that towers above the corner of 21 S. Eutaw St. and West Lombard Street. The clock faces are made of translucent white glass, and spell the letters B-R-O-M-O S-E-L-T-Z-E-R, with the dials illuminated by mercury-vapor lights.

“It’s our own little ‘Hugo’ space,” Betsy Stone, the leasing administrator, said.

There is also a museum history room below the clock works, featuring Bromo-Seltzer memorabilia that includes the famous cobalt blue bottles the product was known for.

Afterward, visitors wander the floors looking at the artwork on the stairwell walls on each of the floors, and exhibitions in the lobby and mezzanine levels. The building, which is open to everyone, houses a broad array of artists, from sculptors, painters and photographers to writers and artists working with fiber.

The Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, is in the second of a three-phase restoration. The clocks will once again be powered by gravity with a swinging pendulum, instead of the silent electric motor it was switched to in 1959. The cost, along with exterior repairs to the roof, is $1.8 million.

The restoration, which began in October, is expected to take about one year, but the tours haven’t been interrupted.

The last phase will involve exterior cleaning and painting.

New lighting recently bathed the building in blue light from the cupola atop the tower. But the idea of returning the rotating replica of a Bromo Seltzer bottle to the top of the building – an idea that some in the city continue to advocate – is still not in the works.

“Everybody is amused about putting something back up there, but it’s not the top priority,” Stone said.

Website: bromoseltzertower.com. This cool website includes an illustration of the building that, when clicking on any of the floors will show the floor plan.

Entrance: Free from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays.

Tours: 11:30 a.m., and 12:30, 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays. $5 (includes entrance to the clock room, which is not handicapped accessible since entrance is by ship’s ladder).

While there: The Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower is a walkable distance from many destinations. Among them: the Inner Harbor, Fell’s Point, Federal Hill, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Hippodrome Theatre, National Aquarium and Lexington Market.