Map shows the Harbor crossing at Federal Hill, in effect 1961 to 1973. 

Excerpt from Stop the Road: “Federal Hill and the Inner Harbor – the Conquistadors of Concrete vs. the Platitudeness Planners*”  

The Road Wars biggest “untold story”

Oddly, the battle over the location of the harbor crossing (Federal Hill vs. Ft. McHenry) is the least remembered of Baltimore’s Road War battlegrounds. But its significance for the future of the city could hardly be exaggerated. Here the protagonists were less communities against politicians; rather this was a battle between professions. We have dubbed this all-consuming conflict: “the Conquistadors of Concrete (engineers) vs. the Platitudeness Planners.”

This truly astonishing story is a tale of revolution from within, as the architects and planners, ostensibly under control of the city/state highway decision-makers, worked steadfastly against the highway plan that their oversight group, every last one of them, was bound and determined to implement. 

With the future of much of the Inner Harbor, Federal Hill, and South Baltimore hanging in the balance, we offer up a few excerpts from the book:

“It was, if you will allow some literary license, the highway planning version of Che Guevara at Santa Clara: architect Nathaniel Owings [Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, or SOM] and his guerrilla planners were outgunned and outmanned but prevailed by guile and fortitude. This monumental achievement—shifting the harbor crossing from Federal Hill to Fort McHenry—was revolutionary, and [Owings’ Urban Design Concept Team or UDCT] staffers were the rebel combatants that overthrew the established order. …”

[Referring to the harbor crossing at Federal Hill,] from our modern-day point of view, it is hard to imagine anything—save, perhaps, a nuclear power plant—that would have had a more deadening effect on future urban vitality…

Dave Nutter [Planning Department liaison to the Urban Design Concept Team] characterized it this way: “The Fort McHenry solution was the bravest decision I have ever been [a part of].”

The decision to hire Owings could almost be termed a “Trojan Horse-type” event. It appears that John Funk [Chair, Maryland State Roads Commission] and Hugh Downs [Interstate Division of Baltimore City] hired Owings based on Archibald Rogers’ [Partner, RTKL] recommendation, almost no-questions-asked. There was no competitive bidding because Downs was overly concerned about the delay. Further, I have to suspect that Funk failed to do his own due diligence; would he have hired Owings if he knew Owings’ history opposing “the highwaymen,” the derisive term that Owings coined in California? Funk and Downs, almost assuredly, later rued the day they hired Owings—they and their successors spent much of the next four years doing battle with a consulting team that, although on their payroll, seemed to be working against their wishes and directives.

On April 20, 1967, Nathaniel Owings spoke at the Committee for Downtown and launched the opening salvo in the four-year struggle. UDCT, he boldly stated, would not be relegated to a “window-dressing” role, he claimed, while characterizing the city’s current plan as a “giant highway system patently out of scale with man and the fragile fabric of his city and his bay.”

He continued, “Now unless the Madison Avenue boys have completely brainwashed us, then we know that running a conventional freeway through a city, using conventional methods of interposing it, is comparable to running a pair of shears through the warp and woof of a priceless tapestry” He compared the developers of Charles Center to Saint George defending Baltimore’s central business district against the “freeway dragon”; Owings boldly stated that UCDT would be “the sturdy shafted lance.”[i]

It did not take long for the defenders of freeway dragon to respond. Jerome Wolff [Maryland State Roads Commissioner] said Owings “will accept our dicta, or we don’t think he can properly be part of the Expressway program.” Bernard Werner [Director, Baltimore Department of Public works] said, “The Concept Team cannot tell us how we’re going to operate,” and claimed Owings was trying to “relegate the engineers to…draftsmen.” Wolff and Werner held the trump card—at this point they were under no obligation to hire Owings.[ii]

The above is just the introduction to the knock-down-drag-out battle over the location of the harbor crossing. The Federal Hill/Inner Harbor chapter of Stop the Road captures the intrigue, the subterfuge, and the conflicts over the harbor crossing controversy, a dispute that means everything for the future of the City of Baltimore. Along the way we will find: Owings repeatedly going over the heads of his clients… Owings making an astonishing appeal to the general public when it looked like his overseers were still going to back the Federal Hill alignment… UDCT staffer Stewart Bryant (a veteran of the UC Berkely Free Speech Movement) working surreptitiously with highway opponents, feeding them information they were not supposed to have, advising them on the weak points in official documents, and helping them organize the city-wide highway opposition group, the Movement Against Destruction… the Maryland State Roads Commission stopping payments to Owings and SOM, causing the firm to endure a months long stand-off with bills mounting to $600,000 ($5 million today)… the firing and re-assignment of Bryant and several other SOM staffers… a back room deal struck by future Senator Barbara Mikulski.   

The Federal Hill/Inner Harbor chapter concludes as follows:

Back up at Federal Hill and Harbor East, there is really no need to cite statistics or state the transformative change that [the Federal Hill crossing] would have prevented. These neighborhoods have become anchors and center points for reinvestment, for young people giving new life to districts that might have been written off by previous generations…

* The “Conquistadors of Concrete” is anti-highway activist Stu Wechsler’s tongue in cheek characterization of the engineers who proposed the harbor crossing at Federal Hill. The “Platitudeness Planners” is the author’s parallel characterization of Nathaniel Owings, the Urban Design Concept Team, and city planners in general.

[i] Baltimore Sun, “Expressways’ Design Team Would Transcend Prettying,” April 20, 1967, University of Baltimore, Digital Archives, Regional collection.

[ii] Baltimore Sun, “Wolff, Werner Criticize Owings: Expressway Feud Develops Over Degree of Control,” Apr 20, 1967, pg. C20, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.