Whose Idea Was That Building?

September 12, 1990|By Herbert E. Witz | Herbert E. Witz,Mr. Witz is president of the U.S.F. Constellation Foundation.

MUCH HAS BEEN said about the new Constellation Center in recent weeks. However, virtually nothing has been said about the history of the building, its purpose and how crucial it is for the very survival of the grand old First Ship of the U.S. Navy.

The Constellation is owned by the U.S.F. Constellation Foundation, Inc., which is charged with the preservation, restoration and maintenance of the ship so that she can be kept open to the public. The foundation is a tax-exempt, non-profit, private foundation.

The annual cost of keeping the Constellation afloat in her present berth is about $600,000, not including such major restoration items as masts, spars and decking. (For example, restoration work on the gun deck is estimated to cost $1 million. The historic wooden ship launched in 1797 requires constant maintenance in order to be open for visitors.

Most of the $600,000 is produced by admission fees from more than a quarter-million visitors a year and from the sale of souvenirs. For the ship to survive as a historical landmark and to properly welcome visitors, an adequate administration facility is essential.

Long before the development of Harborplace, the city built a permanent dock for the Constellation at Pier One, as a focal point in the harbor. At that time it was promised that a museum and administration building exclusively for the use of the Constellation would be built on this new dock.

Over the years, designs for the building were developed, one of which received approval even though its size was larger than the present structure. Another design was submitted by the architect for Harborplace. The building was not constructed because funds were not available.

Instead, a temporary frame structure was built on the dock for the admission of visitors. The foundation was properly urged by the city to dispose of this unsightly temporary building and build a suitable facility for the display of its artifacts, the processing of visitors and a gift shop.

Finally, after programming the basic needs for the center and after reducing it in size from the previous proposals, the highly respected and talented architect, Mario Schack, was hired. His proposals received severe scrutiny at various review hearings. Changes were made as the result of this process, the design was finally approved by all authorities and a building permit duly issued by the city. The same lengthy reviews and processes were followed as those used for all other buildings in the Inner Harbor.

Every dollar spent on the construction of the new center has been raised by the foundation through the generosity of many private individuals, corporations and foundations in the community, without a dollar from any governmental source.

Much thought was given to the size and configuration of the new center. There were certain physical constraints imposed by the structure of the dock itself. The ship must be boarded on the spar deck, approximately 12 feet above the dock; only certain locations on the ship afford practical boarding. Safety and security reasons further determine the location, size and height of the new building.

The foundation recognized its responsibility to improve the educational experience of the thousands of school children and adults who visit the ship, and determined that an exhibition area was needed to display historic artifacts and paintings, as well as space for an introductory educational film.

The Sun was kind enough to publish on November 25, 1989, an article and picture of a model of the proposed new center, showing its position on the dock and its relationship to the ship. No one who reads the paper should have been surprised when they viewed the finished construction.

From the time the Constellation was first docked in her present berth, photographs of the ship have been taken from the west or port side and not from the starboard side. Curiously enough, this is also true of the historic prints and paintings of the ship.

All are welcomed aboard to visit the Constellation and help support this leading tourist attraction and educational experience in our harbor.

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