Built to house the Baltimore branch offices of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company following the Great Fire of 1904, this structure was an early commission of the architectural firm of Parker & Thomas (later Parker, Thomas & Rice), the preeminent architects of Baltimore’s Beaux Arts commercial & financial structures of the first quarter of the twentieth century.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the Pennsylvania Railroad vied with the locally owned Baltimore & Ohio Railroad for control of rights-of-way and development rights for lines in and out of the city. While the B&O was the older of the two competing railroads (founded in 1830), the Pennsylvania Railroad had surpassed the B&O in size, scope, and profitability by the 1870s.
Such was the nature of railroad competition in Baltimore that the two lines even maintained separate passenger terminals, with Mount Royal Station serving the B&O (and its dominance of lines running south) and the Pennsylvania maintaining a site between Charles and St. Paul Streets.
In 1900, under the leadership of Alexander Cassatt, brother of expatriate Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, the Pennsylvania Railroad merged with the B&O, and the two companies shared a Board of Trustees. Partly in response to efforts in Washington to enact legislation prohibiting railroad monopolies, the Pennsylvania and B&O maintained separate corporate identities during this period, although the “union” of the two companies was celebrated by Cassatt’s pet project, Washington, DC’s monumental Beaux-Arts style Union Station (1902).
When the 1904 Fire destroyed the Second-Empire style B&O headquarters on the northwest corner of Baltimore and Calvert Streets, the corporate officers elected to rebuild a grand, 13-story Beaux-arts tower on a new site, two blocks to the west. The Pennsylvania, by contrast, retained its site and elected the relatively small, restrained building seen today. The interrelationship of the two companies and the coordination of their post-Fire building schemes is attested to by the fact that both the Pennsylvania Railroad building and the B&O tower on Charles Street were designed by the same architectural firm, Parker & Thomas. The modesty of the Pennsylvania’s building (in spite of the company’s essential domination of the B&O) is part and parcel of the effort to maintain distinct identities for the two merged companies.
By 1906—the time of the Baltimore post-Fire rebuilding of both the Pennsylvania and B&O buildings— Cassatt was dead, the Republicans had passed antitrust legislation and the two companies administratively pried themselves apart once again. Thus, what may have begun in 1905 as a somewhat disingenuous attempt to maintain the united railroad companies’ discrete corporate identities through the erection of two separate and stylistically and hierarchically distinct structures, became an accurate representation of corporate separation by the time the buildings were complete in 1906.