Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Exploring the Bromo Seltzer clock tower in Baltimore

From Washington Monument & Mount Vernon Place we headed south on Cathedral Street past the Walters Art Museum, whose collection includes masterworks of ancient Egypt, Greek sculpture and Roman sarcophagi, as well as illuminated manuscripts, Renaissance bronzes and Old Master European and 19th-century paintings. We didn’t have time to stop there, but we did duck into the Enoch Pratt Free Library for a respite from the heat and humidity. Located across the street from the Baltimore Basilica, the library is currently undergoing restoration – but it is open for business. After our exploration of the George Peabody Library the boys were anxious to get their little hands on books that they could actually read, and so we spent a quiet half an hour tucked away in the basement children’s section before continuing south to our next destination, Baltimore’s tallest skyscraper - if only from 1911 to 1923.

The Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower is 15 stories tall, a testament to the role of the Emerson Drug Company in Baltimore during the first half of the 20th century. The Palazzo Vecchio-inspired tower and factory were designed by Joseph Evans Sperry specifically for Bromo-Seltzer inventor Isaac Emerson after his visit to Italy, and opened in 1911. By 2002 the tower was virtually abandoned, but instead of demolishing the landmark (which had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973), the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts and philanthropists Eddie & Sylvia Brown worked to transform the structure into artist studios, resulting in the restored building we explored on our visit.

The Bromo-Seltzer brand of antacid was composed of acetaminophen, sodium bicarbonate, and citric acid, and was marketed as a pain-reliever and hangover cure, as well as a remedy for heartburn, upset stomach and acid indigestion. Among the original components were sodium bromide (tranquilizers that were withdrawn from the U.S. market in 1975 due to their toxicity) and acetanilide (now known to be poisonous); this explains why you won’t find Bromo-Seltzer on your pharmacy shelves today. The main factory for the drug was adjacent to the tower, but was demolished in 1969 and replaced with the firehouse that stands there today.

Instead of numbers, the four clock faces feature the letters "BROMOSELTZER" and smaller roman numerals. As if the 24-foot diameter dials aren’t visible enough, the tower was originally topped by a 51 foot glowing and rotating blue Bromo-Seltzer bottle & crown which weighed 20 tons and could be seen 20 miles away; this beacon was removed in 1936 due to structural concerns.

When it was finished in 1911 the Bromo Seltzer clock featured the largest four dial gravity driven clock in the world. In 1975 it was electrified, but as part of the restoration the original weight drive was recently restored, and today the inner workings can be viewed on the guided history tour.

The tower is only open to visitors on Saturdays from 11am to 4pm (art studios open at noon), while clock room tours are given at 11:30, 12:30, 1:30 and 2:30 for a fee of $8/person. The tour includes not only access to the clock room, but a 30 minute presentation, and entrance to the tower museum on the 15th floor. The collection showcases all sorts of Bromo Seltzer memorabilia such as the cobalt blue glass bottles made by the Maryland Glass Corporation – another one of Isaac Emerson’s businesses, specifically started to provide Bromo Seltzer with their trademark glass.

Planning your visit? Tours can fill up beforehand and are limited to a certain # of people, so you might want to arrive before the scheduled tour time to purchase tickets and sign a waiver. While waiting for the tour to start, check out the artists’ studios for a unique Baltimore souvenir, or browse the museum and marvel at the spectacular view from the tower. If you’re hungry I can recommend the Thai restaurant across the street, and if you’ve really got some time to kill head on over to Westminster Hall and Edgar Allen Poe’s grave some six blocks away. The Bromo Seltzer Tower website has more event and artist information. 

As we walked back towards the harbor we passed a wave of baseball fans on their way to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, but once we approached the Convention Center and the various downtown hotels we started hearing more and more Latvian spoken by passersby, a reminder of the event that had brought us to Baltimore in the first place – the Latvian Song and Dance Festival.

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