The goal for Murphy & Dittenhafer’s portion of the project is to preserve the authentic exterior appearance and make interior improvements that align with the period and style of the building.

Cruise down the Jones Falls Expressway toward Baltimore, just inside the city limits, and you might glimpse the tile roof of an old building barely visible beyond the concrete guardrail.

It’s the tip of an engineering iceberg.

Inside that historical structure – the Vernon Pumping Station – three huge pumps distribute more than a million gallons of water a day to area residents, funneling it through miles and miles of pipe to homes across much of Baltimore.

The city tapped Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects (in partnership with Pennoni Associates, Inc.) to help with a large-scale upgrade to the structure. It was an opportunity not just to bring the firm’s historical preservation expertise to bear but also to get a front row seat for something special.

“This is an interesting one that I’m pretty excited about,” said architect Bruce Johnson. “If you think about it, we’re helping to work on a man-made marvel here.”

‘Repair, protect, preserve’

The Vernon Pumping Station dates from 1931 and has the sort of wear you’d expect after 80-plus years.

The Spanish Colonial- style building’s tile roof needs repair, and the hope is that it can be finished without a complete relaying of the roof tile, Johnson said. There’s been some tile breakage but most can be saved and reused.

The terra cotta glaze on the site is damaged in places but repairable, too. There’s expected wear and tear around windows and doors—including some great original bronze-faced panel doors.

“You don’t see those too much anymore,” Johnson said.

The idea for M&D’s portion of the project, undertaken with the Maryland Historical Trust, is to maintain the authentic exterior appearance and make interior improvements that align with the period and style of the building, always with an eye toward modern functionality.

That’s a Murphy & Dittenhafer specialty, Johnson said.

“Any time you’re talking about historical sites, we approach it with great thought and respect,” he said. “We want to repair, protect, preserve.”

Part of a team

The impetus for the pumping station project came from a singular aspect of its original design: one large, buried outflow pipe that runs right under the JFX.

“You can imagine the fear,” Johnson said. “They’re thinking, ‘It’s been down there for 80 years, so how long until this thing springs a leak?’”

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The new plan is to build a tunnel for that large outflow manifold, allowing for both better protection and access to the pipe. It’s a large excavation project still years away from completion for the city, but it’s exciting to think about.

For Johnson, the project has provided an opportunity to study the history of the water system in Baltimore, the sort of relevant research Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects often undertake to better understand their subject.

In this case that studying has revealed an array of settling tanks and spreaders scattered across Baltimore, an intricate web of pipes set under the city, and all told a better understanding of the scope and importance of the system.

“The whole thing to me has just been fascinating,” Johnson said. “It’s a very unique project, and I’m enjoying work on our little piece of it.”