At long last, a view of Mt. Vernon Square

Jacques Kelly

February 15, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

Museums fear that harsh light will damage artwork. And as a result, visitors to the Walters Art Gallery have long lacked a window to look at the delights of Mount Vernon Square.

They have needed a perfect spot for viewing the particulars of Mount Vernon Square -- the fountains, the Barye bronzes, the Washington Monument, the greenish stone walls of Mount Vernon Place Methodist Church, the pale yellow facade of the Mount Vernon Club and the aristocratic Washington Place Apartments.

They have a window now. It is in the mansion at 1 W. Mount Vernon Place.

Hackerman House, as it is now called, is due to open May 5 after a $7 million restoration by the Walters, which should earn loud and long applause for the museum's wise stewardship of the project.

The newest addition to the Walters complex of museum buildings showcases the seldom-seen treasures of its Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Southeast Asian collections.

The main Walters' galleries, the 1904 and 1974 buildings each have facades on sunless Centre Street. The Centre Street museum entrance is hardly an inviting portal. It's odd that a Mount Vernon landmark seemed to miss out on the square's graciousness. (The Walters has offices at 5 W. Mount Vernon Place that are not generally open to the public.)

Hackerman House seems to take great pride in its prized location at the 8 o'clock position at the foot of the Washington Monument.

Like others, I was worried -- needlessly it turns out -- that the architectural connections between the sets of museum buildings might backfire and disturb the discreet tone of Mount Vernon Place. At one point, a kind a metal skywalk was proposed. This got junked as the museum was not too proud to rethink its role in the neighborhood.

The major exterior change -- and not a good one -- is an additional story atop Hackerman House's former stables, which has a prominent setting in the 600 block of N. Charles St.

The extra floor is topped with a copper dome, the most awkward part of the design. The dome looks as if it should be part of Donald Trump's Atlantic City Taj Mahal. And this rounded cap serves no purpose in the mansion. It hardly ruins the square it faces. And in time, this silly roof might become a curiosity. But somebody's showing off in the wrong place.

Some people grimaced at the decision to restore the paint to the Hackerman House's exterior walls. But the paint is a great success; the place always looked foolish and too suburban in its red brick mode.

Other people protested the green glass (it screens out damaging light) used to glaze the windows in the mansion. Though a surprise the first time I saw the glass, it seems unobjectionable today.

The shutters that once hung beside the windows would be ideal to see restored. Walters Director Robert Bergman said they could be if a donor emerged with a checkbook in hand.

I suspect the loudest huzzahs will go to the art and to a totally unexpected subterranean dining cafe with a fountain that is hidden behind the Hackerman House. At long last, the Walters, which served no food on a daily basis, is getting into the chicken salad business.

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