Museum windows' tint raises hue and cry in Mount Vernon

November 02, 1990|By Edward Gunts

When officials at the Walters Art Gallery were planning to convert the Hackerman House on Mount Vernon Place to a museum for Asian arts, they got specific approval from the city to repaint the exterior brick walls that former owner Harry Gladding stripped bare in the early 1960s.

They also got specific approval to build a multilevel connection between the house and the 1904 gallery at Charles and Centre streets.

What they didn't get approved specifically is the exact tint of the storm windows installed on the outside of the 1850 landmark.

And now that the $7 million museum conversion is largely complete, those windows have become the subject of the latest architectural controversy in the Mount Vernon historic district, with more than a few residents claiming they are overly dark and out of keeping with the building's residential character.

"The Hackerman House, a beautiful 19th century building, has these very peculiar 20th century showroom windows, and a lot of people are concerned about how this looks," said Ruth Wolf Rehfeld, a member of the architectural review committee of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Improvement Association.

Ms. Rehfeld's committee asked Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation to determine whether they are in compliance with the design CHAP approved more than a year ago.

Since then, Walters director Robert Bergman and his architects have met with CHAP members several times about the windows, and they are scheduled to meet again today.

According to executive director Kathleen Kotarba, CHAP approved application materials that called for "slightly tinted windows" and the board members didn't think they would be so dark.

Mr. Bergman said he did not mean to circumvent CHAP. He said the wording on the city's "notice to proceed" order allowed the Walters to add "tinted windows," and that he didn't think any further approval was necessary. He added that the museum is scheduled to open in May and that the Walters can't afford to take the time or spend any extra funds to change the windows now.

As installed, the storm windows on the first and second floors are 60 percent tinted, which means they block out 60 percent of the natural light. On the third floor level, they are 35 percent tinted.

Mr. Bergman said the lower floors will house valuable porcelain pieces and other works of art and the architects, Grieves Associates, had to limit the amount of light coming in the windows to protect the art inside. At the same time, he said, no one wanted to close the house up like a tomb and block views of Mount Vernon Square.

At CHAP's request, the architects have been exploring various ways to mitigate the opaqueness of the tinted windows. They have added muntins to some windows, reinstalled ornamental grillwork, lit rooms inside the house and experimented with putting draperies around the windows and shining lights on them.

"With the muntins, with grillwork, with depth and light, we think we will be able to give the building the liveliness it needs," Mr. Bergman said.

Richard Watson, another Mount Vernon-Belvedere architectural committee member, said he is encouraged by the museum's response so far. He said he is asking residents to monitor the project and tell his committee whether they believe the situation has improved.

Robert Quilter, an architect who coordinates the city's Design Advisory Panel, said he sees the window issue as an inevitable byproduct of the decision to convert the house to a museum. He said he admires the architects' attempt to provide any views from the house at all.

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