The architect's model of Merritt Tower in Gerald Klein's Baltimore law office was four feet tall and artfully lit -- a grand symbol of things to come.

The proposed 29-story structure was to be Klein's stamp on the city of Baltimore. On the top floor, above the spacious offices, would be a rarity in this working-class city: a penthouse apartment. From its heights, Gerald Stanley Klein -- lawyer, developer, chairman of Merritt Commercial Savings & Loan -- could look out over the city's financial district, ever-present Dictaphone in hand.

Friends and business associates recall the extensive plans for Merritt Tower as "vintage Gerry Klein" -- elaborate, ambitious, long on detail and image. But today, Klein has lost the unfinished building, the Merritt thrift and many of his other properties. Further, he is being investigated as part of a criminal probe of Merritt by state and federal authorities.

And, instead of being heralded as a dazzling entrepreneur, he is viewed as one of the most controversial figures in the collapse of the state's savings and loan industry.

According to a state report released recently on the causes of the collapse, Klein and Merritt engaged in a pattern of abuses common at eight thrifts: insider dealing, excessive fees and misuse of depositors' funds.

Because of the terms of the sale of Merritt to the Chase Manhattan Corp. last fall, however, many legislators and observers contend that Klein received undeserved leniency. "A lot of people have to feel that he got to walk away from the whole thing," said state Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery).

With the publicity surrounding the savings and loan crisis, the 43-year-old Klein became a very public figure -- but in name only. Neither he nor his representatives were present in Annapolis last fall when the state was negotiating the sale of the Merritt thrift, and few lawmakers have met him or know very much about him.

Both Klein and his Baltimore attorney, Zelig Robinson, have repeatedly refused to comment publicly on any aspect of the situation. Robinson told a reporter recently that he and Klein had decided "it wouldn't be in anyone's interest" to grant an interview.

The information available about Klein comes from present and former business and law associates, most of whom agreed to talk with a reporter only if promised anonymity. Some speak of him with acrimony, recalling what they describe as his brusque and "autocratic" manner.

Others, while allowing that their relationship with Klein is strained, stressed concerns that he be depicted fairly as a shrewd businessman who did quality work. "I don't think Gerry set out deliberately to hurt anybody," explained one former business associate who had worked with Klein for almost a decade.

What emerges from the interviews is a picture of a short, stocky man driven by, some contend, an enormous ego. He is, according to the sources, a man who heartily enjoys the trappings of success -- the dark blue Cadillac limousines, the lemon-colored Mercedes convertible nicknamed "the Yellowbird," the striking female subordinates hired to chauffeur him on his rounds and to transcribe his reams of dictation.

He is, they say, the sort of man who would reassure business associates about his lightning-quick expansion with the pet phrase, "You've got to look at the big picture."

Gerald Klein grew up in suburban Baltimore, the devoted only son of a retired federal government employe. After attending the University of Maryland, he graduated from the University of Baltimore Law School at a time when the school offered only evening classes. In June 1965, he received a master's degree in law from the University of Chicago. He and his wife Ellen, who owns a Baltimore area jewelry firm, have no children.

From 1967 to 1975, while working as one of 60 assistant solicitors for Baltimore, Klein established a small law firm dealing primarily in business cases. But it was as a real estate developer that he apparently hoped to make his mark. He became involved in several large ventures on the Eastern Shore and in the Chesterfield housing development in Anne Arundel County, one of the largest such projects in Maryland, with 1,846 lots.

In May 1982, Klein and his partner at the time, New York investor Robert V. Gibbs, bought Merritt from Baltimore dentist Gilbert Cullen and two other persons. Cullen would not discuss the selling price or the manner of financing. Merritt, which had been founded in 1919, had assets of about $85 million to $95 million at the time of the sale, Cullen said.

Three years later, Klein had bought out Gibbs, apparently as the result of a bitter disagreement over Merritt's direction, and Merritt reported assets of $380 million. And, through his ownership of Merritt and companies that specialized in construction and land development, Klein fashioned a self-contained enterprise that could develop, finance and build real estate projects.

But Klein's empire was soon to collapse. When reports about its management and that of Old Court Savings & Loan sparked withdrawal runs at those and other thrifts, Merritt voluntarily went into state conservatorship on May 12.

Several billboards along Rte. 50, the main thoroughfare to the resort beaches of Ocean City, Md., and Delaware, promote Gerald Klein's luxury condominium project: "King's Grant. Not Just Another Castle in the Sand."

While the north Baltimore suburb of Pikesville was his home, the Eastern Shore for the last five years was Klein's weekend getaway. It was a place not for swimming or boating or sunning, but for indulging his desire to play, as he often put it, Monopoly with real property and real stakes.

There, he could be a leading developer, the king of a virtually self-sufficient real estate empire and, curiously, a gentleman farmer who took pride in touring his hog farms -- from the back seat of a limousine.

"Here he'd come, in his limos, with his entourage, the beautiful people," recalled Theodore Spencer, 70, a retired Snow Hill farmer who tended some of the hogs. "It was a big, important man come to visit."

Although many associates made mention of Klein's always-attractive subordinates, they were also quick to stress that there was never a hint of impropriety between Klein and his employes.

That Klein took pride in his various projects -- and the image he was building -- was obvious to his associates. They tell of him flying investors from New York to see his posh condominiums, of chartered buses touring the hog farms with their "state-of-the-art sewage lagoons."

But many believe that, in the end, Klein's heavy involvement in Eastern Shore real estate contributed to the downfall of Merritt.

Beginning in 1982, Klein acquired various Delaware-based supply, contracting and surveying firms to oversee his shore development. Eventually, outsiders had to be hired to do only minor architectural design and some sewer and water installations, sources said. In turn, Merritt invested heavily in projects that used Klein's firms.

For example, according to sources, Merritt loaned more than $28 million to two condominium projects owned by Merritt subsidiaries, King's Grant near Bethany Beach, Del., and Heron Harbour Isle in Ocean City. The condominiums were designed for people who can afford to pay $200,000 to $350,000 for a second home.

Partly because Merritt held a large number of these construction and development loans, which are speculative by nature, and few liquid assets, such as government securities or home mortgages, it was forced to seek a state conservatorship when heavy withdrawals began.

Klein's various business associates said they had begun to worry more than a year earlier, however, when they could see that the thrift's "portfolio was out of balance." The state analysis of the thrift crisis released recently stated that, in early 1984, "only 27 percent of the association's total assets were residential/owner-occupied loans," violating the regulation that such loans should constitute more than half of the association's total assets.

But if Klein was worried, he apparently didn't show it.

"I remember him saying to me, 'Never worry about money. Money should never be an object to you. If you need it, I can send it to you in a bushel basket,' " one former Eastern Shore business associate recalled.

The people who worked for and with Klein found it sometimes exciting, always demanding. He expected total loyalty, they said, and an ever-sympathetic, never-disapproving ear as he discussed his plans. He did not stop talking business even when he allowed himself and his subordinates a dinner break, usually at 10 p.m. or later.

"He could make you feel good, though," said one former employe who worked with Klein on Eastern Shore projects for about two years. "He'd say, 'You're doing a fine job, I wish I had two of you,' and you'd feel like a million dollars." Klein also was known to give periodic bonuses of $5,000 or $10,000 to some of the vice presidents of his various firms.

Klein seemed to have no real hobbies. A constant muncher, he was always touting the latest miracle diet while reaching for second and third helpings of chicken and dumplings. To some, it seemed that his interest in his four hog farms was a form of escape; there had to be some explanation for his enthusiasm about the off-white animals because they apparently were never profitable.

One secretary gave Klein a pair of monogrammed overalls to wear on his excursions to the farms. Others recall his apparent happiness as he would report, "I had a good time at the hog farm today."

The farms are one of several properties Klein kept as part of an agreement with Chase Manhattan Corp., the New York banking giant that purchased Merritt and two other Maryland thrifts in early November. Klein's agreement with Chase, which was called "repugnant" by some legislators, was a major stumbling block to the sale.

The sale was advocated by Gov. Harry Hughes, who said it relieved the state of an estimated $100 million in possible losses at Merritt and because it was a step toward solving the savings and loan crisis. But the deal was nearly blocked by legislators who believed that the settlement was too generous to Klein considering his management practices.

The allegations against Klein had been outlined for state officials by the attorney for Merritt's state conservator. In an 11-page letter detailing some of Merritt's real estate ventures, Robert J. Thieblot advised state officials they had ample reason to sue Klein to avoid "very substantial losses" in the event that the prospective acquisition by Chase fell through.

The letter alleged widespread insider dealing by Klein, repeated violations of state and industry regulations governing loans and deposits, imprudent loan practices that Klein insisted upon despite opposition by the thrift's board of directors, and payment of excessive fees to Klein and his law firm.

Despite their misgivings, the legislators narrowly approved the Chase transaction; it freed an estimated $500 million in deposits for 70,000 customers at Merritt and the two other thrifts.

Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, who had overseen Merritt's affairs since it entered conservatorship, then approved the transaction while criticizing Klein's agreement with Chase. Kaplan thus joined legislators' complaints about Chase's leniency to Klein in forgiving loans and in permitting his continued control over potentially profitable properties such as the Chesterfield housing project.

In several public briefings, Chase had assured legislators that Klein would be permitted to keep properties with an aggregate worth of $30 million, but Chase said he would be saddled with $51 million in loan commitments that would ensure that the former Merritt owner would remain deeply in debt.

However, under the terms of two agreements between Chase and Klein later presented to the legislature, Klein emerged with fewer debts to Chase because the bank promised to restructure and forgive many of the loans.

The total amount Klein was forgiven could not be determined, but among the arrangements was one that forgave $7.5 million in loans if he helped Chase untangle the thrift's complex portfolio.

Further, Kaplan and others who scrutinized the affairs of Merritt say they believe that the properties Klein retained will have considerable potential for making money. Klein retained control of at least two real estate ventures including the Chesterfield development that, in a good economy, should generate cash.

Determining exactly how Klein has fared in the crisis is difficult.

In one light, he could be seen as a broken businessman. Most of the projects in which he took such pride -- to the point of selecting the counter tops in the condominium kitchens, for example -- now belong to Chase, not Klein.

His legal entanglements may prove lengthy. In mid-November, former business associate Morris H. Wolf of Lutherville, Md., filed a federal suit against Klein and Chase alleging that they tried to defraud him of his interest in the Chesterfield development. And Merritt Tower is no more; the downtown Baltimore building was recently sold to a New York firm for $31 million.

Stanley T. Burns, president of Chase in Maryland, who said Klein has been cooperative in sorting out the thrift's portfolio, describes the former owner as a man who has not profited from the crisis.

"I've heard him say that what he's ended up with is a huge collection of complicated problems," Burns said recently.

But at least two persons who have spoken with Klein since the resolution of the Merritt-Chase deal remain doubtful. "He told me he was going to come out of this better than before," said one associate.

Perhaps the purported statement is simply bravado, made by a man fond of grand gestures and always mindful of his image to others. Or perhaps it is financial fact, proof that through shrewdness and circumstance Klein managed to navigate his way through a potentially devastating mess.

Whatever the answer, associates familiar with the statement describe it as "vintage Gerry Klein."