A survivor that has endured decades of abandonment, the 1914 Lebow Building is an impressive example of early 20th century industrial architecture that is just starting a new future as the Baltimore Design School. While it takes its popular name from the Lebow Brothers Clothing factory that occupied the building from the 1950s through 1985, the Lebow Building actually shares a common history with the Copycat Building next door and the artist-owned Cork Factory – all three were built by Baltimore's Crown Cork & Seal Company.
Founded by prolific inventor William Painter in 1892, the Crown Cork & Seal Company centralized their operations on the 1500 block of Guilford Avenue in a new Romensque six-story warehouse in May 1897. William Painter died in 1906 but the business continued to grow and the Lebow Building was built in 1914 to serve as a machine shop. The design by architect Otto G. Simonson featured vast expanses of glass – windows made up nearly 75% of the exterior facade – and a unique ventilation system. Simonson had arrived in Baltimore in 1904 to work as the superintendent for the construction of the U.S. Custom House located at South Gay and East Lombard Streets. Born in Dresden, Germany, Simonson immigrated to Hartford, Connecticut at age 21 and worked for many years in the office of supervising architect of U.S. Treasury Department in the early 1880s, eventually becoming the superintendent of construction of public buildings.
The builder, Herbert West, had supervised the construction of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York before moving his architectural career to Baltimore in the aftermath of the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 to focus on developing fireproof buildings. West became a leader in the local architectural community and helped to develop city building codes as president of the Building Congress and Exchange of Baltimore.
By the 1920s, the Crown Cork & Seal Company provided a full half of the world's supply of bottle caps. Between two and three hundred people worked at the machine shop and employees benefited from amenities including an outdoor rooftop recreation area for ladies and a separate area for men in the building's courtyard. In 1930, however, the company began to consolidate operations at their 35-acre factory complex in Highlandtown.
In 1950, the machine shop was leased to Lebow Brothers Clothing Company – a preeminent manufacturer of men's clothing at the time and especially well-known for their coats and suits. In 1982, private developer Abraham Zion purchased both the company and the building. However, Lebow Clothing ceased manufacturing and the building was shuttered in 1985.
In 2013, the abandoned building was transformed into the Baltimore Design School. The school focuses on creating a collaborative and progressive educational environment. The former loading dock is now an outdoor performance space for fashion shows. Salvaged equipment from the clothing factory is exhibited in the former freight elevator to honor the building’s previous life. The project met the Secretary of Interior Standards for historic preservation and received state and federal tax credits and is a LEED Silver certified green building.