One Calvert Plaza – Baltimore, Maryland - Atlas Obscura

One Calvert Plaza

Baltimore's first skyscraper may be home to the inspiration behind pulp fiction's most celebrated bird. 

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Originally known as the Continental Trust Company Building, One Calvert Plaza in downtown Baltimore, Maryland, was erected in 1901 as a multistory office building. Designed in the Beaux-Arts style by famed Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham, the Continental Trust was constructed of steel encased in terracotta. At 16 stories and 276-feet in height, the building is recognized as Baltimore’s first skyscraper.

It remained the city’s tallest building until eclipsed by the Bromo-Seltzer Arts Tower in 1911. The building’s decorations include two large bronze falcons posed regally atop the columns flanking each side of the main entrance. Smaller bronze birds decorate the arched window pediments encircling the ground floor.

The building was touted as being fireproof because of its terracotta shell. That claim proved partially true when the Continental Trust became one of the few downtown buildings that survived the Baltimore Fire of February 1904. Unfortunately, the inside of the building “flamed like a torch” during the conflagration, completely incinerating the interior. It was there that the fire reached its highest temperature, 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

However, the exterior shell remained intact and standing. Burnham himself returned to Baltimore to inspect the fire damage, and he declared the building structurally sound and fit for restoration.

The Continental Trust was also home to the Baltimore office of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Baltimore native and American mystery author, Dashiell Hammett, worked for Pinkerton in Baltimore from 1915 to 1920. His years as a Pinkerton operative exposed him to the city’s seedier side and heavily influenced his writing. As a detective, he survived a stabbing and a brick to the head.

Hammett once said, “All of my characters are real. They are based directly on people I knew or came across.” In Hammett’s early detective stories, the unnamed protagonist is referred to as “The Continental Op,” an obvious nod to the Baltimore building. He was likely based on James Wright, the older detective who trained Hammett at Pinkerton. Other Baltimore settings and street names pepper Hammett’s writing.

The bronze birds that decorate the Continental Trust façade are believed to be the inspiration and model for the priceless statuette in Hammett’s most famous novel, The Maltese Falcon.

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