Renovated school of 1820s houses galleries and studios


January 27, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

EASTON — Five years ago they had a staff of four, a budget of about $200,000 and a sadly deteriorating building.

Today, Easton's Academy of the Arts, a resource that serves the entire Eastern Shore and has an annual audience of 28,000 and growing, has a staff 10 and a budget of $425,000 to support an annual schedule of 180 programs.

As for the building, the original 1820s structure looks much the same as you approach its front door on Easton's South Street. But open the door, and what a change.

The 19th century exterior now masks a 1990s interior with spacious, modern galleries and up-to-date studios centering on a light-filled two-story "atrium" hall that acts as the keystone for this much-enlarged facility.

It's not finished yet. Yesterday's "Grand Opening and Community Open House" saw the completion of the major, $2 million phase (including $450,000 from the state) of an eventual $2.5 million to $3 million project incorporating the original academy building and the adjacent Thomas-Hardcastle House, another historic structure also dating from the 1820s.

The project is now about 80 percent complete, with overall space increased from 6,500 to 16,400 square feet and gallery space up from 2,130 to 5,245 square feet. The rest of the project, increasing total space to more than 20,000 square feet, will proceed as money is available, according to academy board chairman Arthur L. S. Waxter.

When the academy decided on a major expansion about five years ago, "the challenge," says project architect Michael L. Quinn of Quinn Evans/Architects in Washington, "was to preserve the architectural and historical integrity of the academy buildings and yet meet the needs of current programs." That included, Mr. Quinn says, bringing the academy up to the exhibition standards of the Smithsonian Institution's Traveling Exhibition Service, so it can bring in traveling shows and borrow from institutions that require museum-quality facilities.

Mr. Quinn, hired in 1986, has worked on other historic buildings including the Smithsonian Institution's Arts and Industries building and the Executive Office Building in Washington and Liriodendron mansion in Harford County.

In the academy design he incorporated the L-shaped original building on South Street (erected as a school) together with the L-shaped Thomas-Hardcastle House on Harrison Street into an effective quadrangle with a courtyard that will act as an outdoor "room" for functions from spring through fall.

The design, which along the way was altered to comply with the wishes of both the Maryland Historical Trust and the Easton Historic District Commission, preserves old facades to the point of retaining even exterior windows that are now "blind" -- inside is just gallery wall, but you would never know it from the shuttered windows outside.

On the other hand, new construction, such as the glass-walled atrium that borders the courtyard and an added enclosed staircase at one end of the original building, is designed to "be compatible with but not mimic the original constructions," Mr. Quinn says. Differences in such elements as moldings and windows willbe discernible to those who take the trouble to look for them, but "the casual person who doesn't look at architecture won't see them," Mr. Quinn says.

Another object, the architect adds, was to "both separate and connect the exhibitions and arts education functions" of the complex.

The original building's main door on the north side of the building opens to the long, two-story "atrium" hall that runs north-south. On the first level, on either side of the hall, are the two main exhibition galleries. The hall itself acts as gallery space on both the first and second levels; on the first, in addition to galleries, are backup spaces including loading dock, space for art preparation and storage vault for the academy's permanent collection, now numbering about 350 works.

On the second level, the hall leads to studios for photography, ceramics, drawing, painting and printmaking. There's also a children's education studio, with tables, stools and even sink scaled to children's size.

The academy's offices are in the Thomas-Hardcastle part of the complex, still to be renovated. This building will also contain a slide registry and art library for the region's artists. Linda Sullivan, executive director since the fall of 1986, says the academy considers its region to be essentially the Eastern Shore, but it also has members from the western shore including Baltimore.

Art is the academy's primary concern, but not its only one. When funds become available, the present complex will be augmented by a two-story addition for performance space and dance studio. And theacademy also owns another building next door to the Thomas-Hardcastle house, which could be renovated for functions the present complex doesn't include -- such as, perhaps, a sculpture studio.

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