The Old Sun Building was the newspaper’s middle child. Not as intricately beautiful or beloved as the Iron Building that perished in the Great Fire, or as modern and streamlined as the Calvert Street building that became the paper’s home in 1950, the Old Sun Building, as it is inevitably referred to, nonetheless has a place in The Sun’s history.
At the time it was built, it was predicted that it would “for all time… meet the requirements of the company,” and at its dedication in 1906, Cardinal James Gibbons waxed poetic and punning when he declared, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious by this Sun of Abell.” It was where The Evening Sun was born and where Sun luminaries H.L. Mencken and A. Aubrey Bodine practiced their craft. Soon its location, at the southwest corner of Baltimore and Charles streets— smack dab in the center of the city— became known as Sun Square.
It was there that Baltimoreans would gather to read headlines pronouncing history-making news like the end of Prohibition and both World Wars as they appeared in lights on the Trans-Lux board that wrapped around the building “just like in Times Square,” according to former Sun photographer Walter McCardell. And in the 1920s and ’30s, sports fans experienced pre-television era World Series on The Sun’s baseball board, a 10-foot-high replica of a baseball diamond mounted on the building’s second floor, complete with a ball moved by staffers according to the “play by play” coming in via telegraph.
Designed by Baltimore architects E. Francis Baldwin and Josias Pennington and built at a cost of $289,206 (with the cost of the land and equipment, the total price tag was $600,000), the Old Sun Building stood four imposing stories high. Two giant clock faces crowned each corner of the building just above the 24 limestone columns that spanned the second and third floors. In “The Baltimore Sun 1837-1987,” Harold A. Williams identifies the building’s style as French Renaissance; Carleton Jones, author of “Lost Baltimore: A Portfolio of Vanished Buildings,” writes that it “evoked the sort of international or Edwardian Fleet Street tone then being passionately sought by the proprietors.”
A 1950 Sun article, apparently untroubled by the appearance of bias, claimed it was “by common consent the most beautiful building of original architectural design in Baltimore.” Certainly there was grandness in the marble staircase that curved upward to the mezzanine level, and the cut-glass sunflower-shaped lamp in the first-floor business office that created a dazzling sun effect with its light patterns. But McCardell, who worked for The Sun for 44 years beginning in the late 1940s, recalls it as “dingy.”
By the time of his employment, McCardell remembers, the Old Sun Building had become a “conglomeration of four different structures,” the result of the company purchasing nearby buildings and melding them into one building with ramps scattered throughout because the floor levels were uneven. The building, which was open 24 hours (prompting a committee from the business office to toss the key to the front door into the Jones Falls on the first night of business after making the rounds of a few pubs), maintained an editorial room, a mail room and a cafeteria on the third floor that sold Crab Imperial for 75 cents, as well as a photo-engraving room, a composing room filled with linotype machines worked by men in shirtsleeves, and a “monkey” room with monotype machines to run advertisements.
“There was no passenger elevator,” Williams writes in his history of The Sun. “The editorial staff on the second floor had no hot water… Sometimes the pressroom caught fire.”
The combination of high summer temperatures and the glare reflected off the marble of the nearby Savings Bank of Baltimore, he notes, often forced the company to bring giant blocks of ice and fans into the newsroom. Even so, some male reporters stripped down to their trousers once any female staff had vacated the premises. And yet from those frantic, messy rooms, editorials were written, cartoons were created, news was reported, Pulitzer Prizes were won.
In 1948, Sun officials announced the paper’s move to a location on Calvert Street, citing downtown traffic and the need for modern-day equipment and presses. The building was vacated on Christmas Eve 1950. According to Williams, Sun employees grabbed bits of the building as memorabilia (Bodine, he says, took the plate marked “Press” off the restroom door) and one intrepid photographer gathered up several of the building’s cockroaches in a cigar box in order to accommodate their move into the new building.
The Sun business office and the early WMAR-TV studios remained in the building, which was eventually razed in 1964 as part of the Charles Center clearance. The Morris Mechanic Theatre, another building whose existence seems perpetually threatened, has stood on the former Old Sun Building site since 1967.