"The Standard": Baltimore’s Historical Relationship with Its Standard Oil Skyscraper
BHW 7: March 18, 2023
From 1870 to 1892, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil rose rapidly and tremendously to the top of America’s corporate landscape and beyond, becoming one of the first multinational corporations.  The company’s monopolistic, meteoric rise raised antitrust alarms in the U.S. government and legal system. In 1892, the ensuing legal battle against the company’s reign over the oil industry had its first major victory when the Ohio Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of the Standard Oil Trust. Despite this, the owners remained the same through a group of companies called the Standard Oil Interests, which reorganized as Standard Oil (New Jersey) in 1899.  The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of most of Standard Oil (New Jersey)’s assets in 1911. Even after this, it remained the second-largest industrial company in the country, behind only United States Steel.  Today, there is a magnificent luxury apartment building in Baltimore City at St. Paul St. and East Franklin St., with “STANDARD OIL COMPANY” engraved above its front entrance (Figure 1). For public passersby, the building seems to signify a historically significant connection between Standard Oil and Baltimore. This monumental building suggests an image of Standard Oil as one of the builders of Baltimore, but its history tells a different story. How did Baltimoreans view the skyscraper and the company? Has Standard Oil played a significant role in the city’s history? A combined analysis of Baltimore City, its Standard Oil building, and the histories of Standard Oil and American capitalism provides answers.
According to Standard Oil’s official history, the 1911 U.S. Supreme Court dissolution ended the first phase of the company’s history, beginning a new period of organizational expansion and integration. The completion of Baltimore’s Standard Oil skyscraper in 1922 was part of this second phase. The company sought to increase its national reach and presence by building headquarters in America’s major cities, then integrating together city operations.  Standard’s refinery in Baltimore, not far from this building, provided further motivation. This Baltimore refinery connected oil distribution between Northern and Southern states, and the corporate building increased this connective capacity. Oil has never been found naturally occurring in Maryland, but that did not stop Standard from using the city’s strategic location for a major refining stop.  The Standard skyscraper itself was appealing for the City of Baltimore, providing proof that “Baltimore found a comfortable position in the new world of national corporations.”  For city boosters, massive corporate construction projects were an always welcome addition to the skyline. Standard Oil (New Jersey) being one of the largest corporations in the country added to the corporate prestige appeal for the city.  But what did the Standard Oil building mean to the people of Baltimore when it opened in 1922?
The early-twentieth century was a turbulent time for public opinion towards big business. Oil was not yet viewed negatively for environmental reasons, so views on large American corporations in general should reflect views on Standard Oil. Business historian Louis Galambos’s authoritative text The Public Image of Big Business in America, 1880-1940: A Quantitative Study in Social Change, provides many general insights that can be applied to Baltimore’s Standard Oil case. Galambos argues that early-twentieth century America experienced a period of immense prosperity that lasted through to the end of World War I. As a result, “By the end of the war there were clear signs that big business and a new set of bureaucratic values were winning a secure place in the culture of middle-class America.”  The antitrust movement had lost much of the momentum it showed in the late-nineteenth century. However, after World War I this shifted dramatically. In sharp contrast to the just-experienced era of prosperity, the postwar economic crisis generated financial anxiety, renewed antitrust sentiment, and opposition to big business.  As the 1920s unfolded, public attitudes towards major corporations softened.  But then with the start of the Great Depression in 1929 they went right back down to the bottom. The 1922 Baltimore building completion thus happened just as the disdain of big business caused by the postwar economic crisis was starting to fade and be replaced by pro-business sentiment, at least until 1929.
Standard Oil was not new to Baltimore City, and negative public views on their refinery there likely influenced views about their corporate construction downtown. The refinery occupied 125 acres in Baltimore’s harbor. In the 1910s, it processed 6,000 barrels of oil daily.  Standard also chose Baltimore for one of their two primary marketing offices in that decade.  However, that their marketing strategy was significantly formulated in Baltimore does not mean that the city’s people were any more susceptible to or targeted by their campaigns. Standard Oil bought up a series of small refineries in the area in the 1890s, before building their large refinery. As they did so, they earned a reputation for harsh treatment of the local refiners they sought to buy out. A story began to circulate about one of the previous refinery owners. It appeared in a major anti-Standard pamphlet and ultimately featured prominently in investigative journalist Ida Tarbell’s The History of the Standard Oil Company, which played a key role in swinging public opinion against the company. The story claimed that a Baltimore refinery owner named Mrs. Hunt had vehemently resisted becoming a Standard affiliate, pledging to continue her successful refining business on her own terms. Then, extreme pressure from the company severely derailed her health, causing her to lose her business.  The truth of the story is questionable but that it featured in prominent national publications suggests it impacted public opinion, a Baltimore-specific case demonstrating Standard’s disreputable practices. 
Baltimore’s large working-class population has played a large role in the city’s identity since the early-nineteenth century. While weathering the ups-and-downs of the national economy, this class largely found plenty of work in the industrial economy. This changed in 1929 with the start of the Depression. The Standard Oil building was completed in 1922 and likely fit fine as the economy soared through much of the 1920s, but then it clashed sharply with the harsh realities of the Depression. Contrary to its working- and middle-class surroundings, the building was from the start marketed as a luxury space, as it still is today. This provided a pretentious aura that ran up against the city’s identity. The building is now leased residentially, but originally it was leased corporately. While it prominently displayed the Standard Oil name out front, a wide variety of tenants operated within it, ranging from the U.S. military to a local bakery.  Advertisements for rental space in the building made clear it was a space of luxury, likely out of reach for many locals. For example, an ad in the Baltimore Sun from May 1924 asserted, “A business is known by the company it keeps. One of the factors which enters into the selection of new office space is the character of the neighborhood. The Standard Oil building stands high in this respect for it has many well and favorably known tenants.”  The Sun has recently admitted to and apologized for having a long history of racism. It does not take much imagination to see how “favorably known” could have racial connotations in this light. 
The building’s location within the city itself placed it as an embodiment of white wealth amidst one of the city’s primary Black neighborhoods. According to the 1930 census, Baltimore City that year had 662,124 white residents and 142,106 Black residents. The Standard Oil building was in Ward 11, which had a historically large Black population. Relatedly, the first Black person elected to the Baltimore City Council was Harry H. Cummings in 1890, and he represented Ward 11.  In 1930, Ward 11 had 9,808 white residents and 7,026 Black residents.  Some other wards had larger Black populations, both numerically and proportionately. But the centrality of Ward 11, downtown in the heart of the city, meant a high level of proximity to Baltimore’s white wealth. Additionally, racial wealth discrepancies in the early-twentieth century U.S. along with extant advertising records suggest the building was marketed to wealthy and white Baltimoreans.  For the city’s large Black population, the Standard Oil building thus may have caused negative associations or feelings of exclusion.
This building demonstrates the struggle over Baltimore City identity seen throughout the city’s history. When Standard Oil launched their post-dissolution expansion and integration campaign in the 1910s, they bet on the city as a surging national urban center. As one of the first national corporations to establish a twentieth-century Baltimore headquarters, they appeared to be early investors in what was going to be a lucrative century for Baltimore. However, just as Standard would soon be humbled by an increasingly crowded oil industry, post-industrialization and suburbanization would push Baltimore down lists of prosperous American cities over the course of the twentieth century.  The nineteenth century inequalities and contradictions of being the largest city in a slavery-ridden border state, while having the largest early-nineteenth century free Black population of any city in the country, speak to the unpredictability of Baltimore’s developmental trajectory. After the Civil War, one might have predicted that this large Black population would thrive. Instead, white Baltimoreans lashed out by rejecting Reconstruction and pioneering Jim Crow.  So when the twentieth century came along, these complex contradictions remained and made highly difficult any predictions of the city’s future through a corporate lens. Rather than judging the Standard Oil bet on Baltimore as an example of mistaken decision-making, it is more pertinent to assert that the middling return on investment reflected the city’s uniqueness and unpredictability.
One of the Standard Oil building’s most-lasting ties to the city is its architect, Clyde N. Friz, who personally defined an era of Baltimore architecture. He designed numerous prominent buildings in the city in the early twentieth century, including the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Scottish Rite Temple of Freemasonry.  When the Standard Oil building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000, it was deemed to meet the criteria, “As the work of one of Baltimore’s best known early twentieth century architects, and as the corporate home of one of the nation’s principal businesses.”  The prominence of Friz in this evaluation speaks to his historically significant role. Friz was born in Michigan and went to college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then made Baltimore his professional home. After completing his education, he worked briefly in St. Louis before moving to Baltimore in 1900 for a position with the Wyatt and Nolting architecture office. In 1925, three years after completing the Standard Oil building, he opened his own practice.  Friz remained committed to Baltimore architecture, and by extension his legacy, throughout the remainder of his life. When he died in 1942, he was actively chairing a special committee working to develop a new fire prevention code for the city. 
Standard Oil (New Jersey) targeted Baltimore City first as a strategically located refinery site and marketing hub from the 1870s through to the 1910s, then for a downtown corporate headquarters that opened in 1922. Local opposition to big business, reflective of the post-World War I economic downturn and later the Great Depression, together with negative associations with white corporate interests in the city, fostered resentment. Standard built their skyscraper in a ward with a large Black population, moving in as a wealthy and predominantly white corporation. This likely resulted in a less than warm reception. While the architecture of the building is iconic of the city and reflects its built identity landscape, the history within its walls seems to run counter to Baltimore’s time-honored working- and middle-class identities. In the twenty-first century, the building is known simply as “The Standard” and is marketed as luxury apartments. When the modern apartments first opened in 2002, a Baltimore Sun reporter wrote, “You may know it as the Standard Oil Building, a handsome dinosaur looming over St. Paul Place in downtown Baltimore. Now, like Madonna and Cher, it has just one name – the Standard – and is the latest in what developers now describe as ‘luxury’ living.” This 2002 story also noted unit leases ranged from $860 to $2,250 per month.  For context, the median household income in Baltimore City in 2000 was $24,642, rendering the unit prices inaccessible to most residents.  It is up to the Baltimoreans who live in and around the building to decide how to feel about it and where to place it in conceptualizations of Baltimore identity, as has always been the case.
 Eli Pousson, “Entrance, Standard Oil Building (1922; Clyde N. Friz, architect; J. Henry Miller, builder), 501 Saint Paul Street, Baltimore, MD, 21202,” photograph (Baltimore, April 10, 2019), Baltimore Heritage, public domain, https://flic.kr/p/24TdXEn.
 Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (New York: Free Press, 2009 ), 19.
 Yergin, The Prize, 82.
 George E. Thomas, “Standard Oil Building, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form,” May 2000, United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 10, https://mht.maryland.gov/secure/medusa/PDF/NR_PDFs/NR-1255.pdf.
 George Sweet Gibb and Evelyn H. Knowlton, History of Standard Oil Company (New Jersey) 2: The Resurgent Years, 1911-1927 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956), 10, https://archive.org/details/historyofstandar0002unse.
 Frederick N. Rasmussen, “Oil in Maryland? It’s just a pipe dream,” Baltimore Sun, June 29, 2008, https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-2008-06-29-0806280135-story.html.
 Baltimore City Government, “The City of Baltimore Comprehensive Master Plan (Final Draft): History of Baltimore,” July 9, 2006, 40, https://planning.baltimorecity.gov/planning-master-plan/plan.
 Thomas, “Standard Oil Building,” 9.
 Louis Galambos, The Public Image of Big Business in America, 1880-1940: A Quantitative Study in Social Change (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019 ), 117, https://muse.jhu.edu/book/68460.
 Galambos, The Public Image of Big Business in America, 193.
 Galambos, The Public Image of Big Business in America, 220-222.
 Gibb and Knowlton, History of Standard Oil Company, 168.
 Gibb and Knowlton, History of the Standard Oil Company, 181.
 See David N. Heller, “Mrs. Hunt and Her Coal Oil Refinery in Baltimore,” Maryland Historical Magazine, March 1992, 30, https://archive.org/details/msa_sc_5881_1_346; Ida M. Tarbell, The History of the Standard Oil Company (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1937 ), 198-199, https://archive.org/details/historyofstandar0000unse.
 Heller, “Mrs. Hunt and Her Coal Oil Refinery in Baltimore,” 36.
 See “Third Corps Heads Now In Their City Offices,” Baltimore Sun, May 13, 1922, 4, https://www.newspapers.com/image/373257331/; “CITY BANKING COMPANY, 900 Standard Oil Building, Baltimore, Md.,” Baltimore Sun, December 27, 1922, 11, https://www.newspapers.com/image/373087982/.
 Standard Oil Company, “Good Company,” advertisement, Baltimore Evening Sun, May 13, 1924, 31, https://www.newspapers.com/image/367400918/.
 Baltimore Sun Editorial Board, “We are deeply and profoundly sorry: for decades, The Baltimore Sun promoted policies that oppressed Black Marylanders; we are working to make amends,” Baltimore Sun, February 18, 2022, https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/editorial/bs-ed-0220-sun-racial-reckoning-apology-online-20220218-qp32uybk5bgqrcnd732aicrouu-story.html.
 “The Colored Councilman. A Pen-Picture of Harry S. Cummings—He Outlines His Public Course,” Baltimore Sun, November 5, 1890, 6, https://www.newspapers.com/image/372575476/.
 United States Census Bureau, “Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930,” Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries (Baltimore, MD), http://jhir.library.jhu.edu/handle/1774.2/35405.
 Standard Oil Company, “Good Company,” Baltimore Evening Sun, 31.
 Mary Rizzo, Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and the Wire (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), 1-2, Kindle edition.
 P. Nicole King, Joshua Clark Davis, and Kate Drabinski, “Introduction: Why Revisit Baltimore Now?,” in Baltimore Revisited: Stories of Inequality and Resistance in a U.S. City, eds. P. Nicole King, Joshua Clark Davis, and Kate Drabinski (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2019), 1-2, Kindle edition.
 John R. Dorsey and James D. Dilts, A Guide to Baltimore Architecture (Centreville, MD: Tidewater Publishers, 1997), 400, https://archive.org/details/guidetobaltimore0000dors.
 Thomas, “Standard Oil Building,” 9.
 Unknown author, “Tuscany-Canterbury Historic District (B-1300), National Register of Historic Places Registration Form,” October 1990, United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 20, https://mht.maryland.gov/secure/medusa/PDF/NR_PDFs/NR-1278.pdf.
 “DEATH PUT OFF NEW FIRE CODE, Clyde Friz’ Demise Two Years Ago Postponed Action,” Baltimore Sun, January 5, 1944, https://www.newspapers.com/image/374179158/.
 Scott Calvert, “Old Standard Oil Building gets apartment makeover,” Baltimore Sun, October 17, 2002, https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-2002-10-17-0210170346-story.html.
 Maryland State Archives, “Maryland at a Glance,” 2020, https://msa.maryland.gov/msa/mdmanual/01glance/economy/html/income.html.