Hackerman House combines cultures of two hemispheres


May 05, 1991|By Edward Gunts

On the first floor of the newly restored Hackerman House in Mount Vernon is one of the most intriguing aspects of the Asian arts collection that the Walters Art Gallery has installed, a display of 18th and 19th century Chinese porcelains that were later "Westernized" by the addition of European ormolu, or gilt metal, mounts.

Although one can still see the purity of the porcelain underneath, the ormolu transforms the pieces to combinations of Eastern and Western sensibilities -- which made them more palatable to Western eyes at a time when Asian art was first introduced to this country.

That act of taking precious objects from the Far East and giving them a new Western setting can be seen as a metaphor for the $7 million effort to prepare the Thomas-Jencks-Gladding-Hackerman mansion, one of the finest town houses of the 19th century, for its new role.

After half a decade of planning and construction, the 22-room building at 1 W. Mount Vernon Place opens to the public today at 1:30 p.m. And just as one may debate whether the Western mounts actually improvethe Eastern artifacts, each visitor will have a chance to decide for himself or herself whether the recent changes made good use of the grand architectural artifact that Willard and Lillian Hackerman donated to Baltimore in 1984.

There is no question, however, that the house, like the porcelain with ormolu mounts, has come through the process in a dramatically transformed state: It is no longer the stately private residence it was for nearly 150 years, and some will consider that a loss for Baltimore. But in many ways it is something far better: a nationally significant museum that sums up, like nowhere else in the country, the surprisingly beautiful clash of the cultures that occurs when East meets West.

... In many ways, this project was even more challenging than the $6.1 million renovation of the 1904 Walters building that was completed three years ago. That project involved the restoration of a relatively large-scale structure designed for the display of art. Hackerman House, by contrast, was a private residence, never before open to the public. Its domestic scale and elegant detailing made it far more delicate and unforgiving of mistakes, much like the porcelain on display inside.

To carry out this transformation, the Walters hired a design team headed by Grieves Associates (now Grieves, Worrall, Wright & O'Hatnick), the Baltimore firm responsible for the hugely successful restoration of the 1904 building.

Unlike the previous project, however, the design team, which included James R. Grieves, David G. Wright and Martha A. Jones, did not attempt to take the entire building back to one point in time, such as 1904. Guiding their strategy in this case was a decision by Walters officials not to create a traditional house museum, in which the architecture dominates and the art is displayed as part of the decor. Here, it is the art that predominates, with the house and its furnishings essentially providing a backdrop for it.

Before they could show off the art, however, the architects had to devise a way to lead visitors from the 1904 building across an alley and up to Hackerman House in the next block. To do so, they created a sequence of spaces that not only take visitors physically into the house but provide a conceptual transition in time and place from Renaissance Europe to the Far East.

The first phase of that transition is a bridge that spans the alley, linking the museum's Baroque gallery with a new octagonal pavilion on top of the mansion's former carriage house. Besides allowing visitors to glimpse their ultimate destination, this pavilion is the first indoor public space on Mount Vernon Place to provide a view of the square. Detailing and materials suggest that the space is an extension of the 1904 building, yet the tantalizing view provides a signal that this is also a gateway to a new experience.

Teased on by the view, visitors may take either stairs or an elevator one level down to the carriage house, whose second level has been converted to a gallery of Southeast Asian art. From there, visitors move into the former backyard of the mansion, which has been excavated to provide room for a 130-seat cafe served by a kitchen inside the first level of the carriage house. The skylit cafe is one of the more playful spaces in the project, with rich colors and stylized columns whose varied details echo the progression from the solidity of the '04 building to the more ornate Hackerman House.

From these transitional spaces visitors finally enter the house itself by taking an elevator or stairs to the first floor, which is furnished to suggest domestic interiors from the 1880s to 1900, when William and Henry Walters were assembling their collection at 5 W. Mount Vernon Place.

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