An art school itself is dazzling art

Jacques Kelly

September 12, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

The Maryland Institute College of Art stands atop Mount Royal Avenue like a white marble wedding cake.

This 1908 art school is one of the crowning landmarks of Bolton Hill, a building modeled after a Florentine palace.

This summer, after two years of renovation and $5 million worth of construction work, the institute's most remarkable building dazzles once again. And, as ever, it's filled with young students who impart a sense of humor to this stately and serious building.

This grand art school/palace at Mount Royal and Lanvale Street is worth a visit.

First-time callers will be pleasantly surprised at its interior riches -- bronze doors, mosaic floors, imposing staircase, marble columns and a Greek greats statuary collection. Out of view are many busy studios and light-filled classrooms.

Most of the $5 million job went toward a new air-conditioning system and elevator, which the aging building needed. But the renovations also shed brilliant new light on the architectural features that time, coal soot and hissing radiators did their best to obscure.

This is a building that stakes its reputation on light, the lights that artists need to paint, draw and sculpt. Its freshly laundered exterior walls now jump out along the Mount Royal Avenue landscape. They are a brilliant white marble, full of the same reflective properties that can make a just-washed pair of Streeper Street front steps so blinding on a sunny September day.

Sunlight also fills the institute's most impressive interior court, thanks to a large rectangular skylight composed of frosted glass panels outlined in pale green glass. It's one of those delightful designs of avariety found in old banks, railroad stations and the palm courts of society hotels.

The cleaning has coaxed other treasures from the shadows. The sides of this court area are curiously embellished with the names of Renaissance artists: Buonarroti (Michelangelo), Vignola, Cellini, Corregio, Bernini, Bramante, Alberti, Palladio, Giotto and Raphael. The effect might be pretentious and stuffy were it not for the way the names are lightened up in colorful, glazed terra cotta. All the rosebud festoons and garlands make this artists' honor roll into an old-fashioned candy box.

There's also the obligatory heroic mural at the top of the grand staircase. Its cast of heroes includes Archbishop John Carroll, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, actor Edwin Booth, Francis Scott Key, Col. Harry Gilmor and many others in a scene that appears to have been conceived by Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille. It was painted by Lee Woodward Ziegler. Thanks to the housecleaning, the mural never has looked better.

The courtroom has its marble columns, perhaps the biggest surprise of all. Thanks to the scrubbing power of today's chemical cleaners, the Numidian marble columns are now a brilliant, rich orange.

The job of selecting paint colors fell to Baltimore interior designer Rita St. Clair, who picked from the classical palette. She used terra cotta reminiscent of Greek vases and a tone of green found on old bronze statues. The result is completely complementary.

Another institute building, the 1896 Mount Royal Station at Cathedral Street and Mount Royal Avenue, also underwent minor surgery this summer. Its four-faced clock, high atop the Port Deposit gray granite tower, is being thoroughly repaired. Even the clock's massive hands were removed and still are missing. All are to be back when the repairs are complete. Officials promise that the reworked clock will be as accurate as in the years when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was in charge there.

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