Starting tomorrow, a judge will decide


October 27, 1991|By Edward Gunts

To Lane Berk, the large red object that spells B-A-L-T-I-M-O-R-E on the roof of her Montgomery Street town house is a work of art, put up for the enjoyment of all who visit Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

But her neighbors in the 200 block of East Montgomery Street -- arguably the choicest block in Federal Hill and certainly one of the priciest in the city -- don't all enjoy it. To some of them, it is a modernistic eyesore that is incompatible with their historic neighborhood and a violation of the urban renewal ordinance for Montgomery Street.

And to city housing department officials, it is a sign that has been installed without city approval in an area where signs are prohibited.

So earlier this month the city solicitor's office, responding to complaints from the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association, sued Mrs. Berk.

City lawyers have asked the District Court of Maryland to order her to take the sign down or to obtain a permit to keep it up. The case goes to court tomorrow morning.

Mrs. Berk, an art collector and civic activist who installed the 10-foot-tall pylon as part of an ongoing renovation of her house, is hurt and puzzled that the city she loves would spend its resources to take legal action against her.

She says the three-sided metal pylon is not a sign at all but a work of sculpture -- a replica of the city's own Baltimore pylon at the city line on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. She said she commissioned and installed it at her own expense to "celebrate Baltimore" -- and will go to jail if necessary rather than take it down.

"Just because it has letters on it doesn't mean it's a sign," she said. "Is Andy Warhol's [Campbell's] soup can a sign? Are the Hollywood letters just a sign? What about the Baltimore Museum of Art and its neon sculpture -- "VIOLINS VIOLENCE SILENCE?"

The only sign it represents, she said, is a sign of the city's %J willingness to drive property owners out of the city with overzealous enforcement of building codes. She contends that she has a building permit signed by housing commissioner Robert Hearn and that it allows her to put up her pylon.

But city officials say neither the initial permit nor the amended permit issued for the house renovation cover the pylon. They say the pylon meets the zoning code enforcement director's definition of a sign and that Federal Hill property owners cannot erect signs without permission from the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals -- which Mrs. Berk doesn't have.

The original pylon was designed more than 10 years ago by the jTC late Alden Christie, a city architect, as part of the comprehensive "trailblazing" marker system for tourists.

The replica, only slightly smaller than the original, has been a subject of debate in Federal Hill for more than a year, and not just because of the is-it-art? debate.

According to Federal Hill Neighborhood Association president Dick Leitch, the pylon violates the ordinance that governs changes to facades and roofscapes of historic buildings within the Montgomery Urban Renewal Area. Part of the ordinance states that roof-level additions of a "contemporary nature" should not be visible from Montgomery Street. He said the association would like to see the pylon moved farther from the front of the house so it is not visible from the street.

"The issue is the integrity of the ordinance," he said. "I don't care if she has Michelangelo's David up there. She would have to move it so it is not visible from the street."

Mrs. Berk said that under those criteria, homeowners with antennas and roof decks ought to be brought to court, too. She believes the city is enforcing its codes selectively by going after her and not others.

Meanwhile, even art experts are divided about the controversy.

Constantine Grimaldis, owner of C. Grimaldis Gallery on Morton Street, said the chief test is the original artist's intent.

"I don't think it was intended as a work of art to begin with," he said. "I thought it was a marker. If the original intent was for it to be a sign, why on the second level can it be called a work of art?"

But George Ciscle, director of the Museum for Contemporary Arts, said the very act of calling it art may make it art.

"Here, she is taking on the role of judging a work of art and displaying it in a gallery setting, which is her home. To this resident, it's not a sign. It's a work of art."

Arnold Lehman, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art and resident of a restored building one block from Mrs. Berk's, declined to be drawn into the issue. He said he does not know enough about the pylon to judge whether it's art. "I don't think she has it there as a sign of any kind," he said. "I think she has it there for another reason. But the issue is not about Lane Berk's taste. It's about what can and cannot be done in this historic district."

Bill Toohey, a spokesman for the housing department, said his department is just trying to enforce the law.

"We say it's a sign. She says it's a work of art. The judge will have to decide."

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