There's a new way to learn about Baltimore's harbor, and it's as easy as taking a stroll. Colorful, tilting islands of information have begun to appear along the shoreline.
The first of these markers, called "fact plaques," focuses on the environment. Others will describe Baltimore's social and architectural history, industrial heritage, geography. The plaques are part of a $1.3 million system of signs and markers planned by the Baltimore Harbor Endowment. They will be placed along 7.5 miles of shore, from Canton through Fells Point and the Inner Harbor, and on toward South Baltimore.
For the past eight years, the non-profit organization has worked to promote appreciation of the harbor and to create a continuous waterfront promenade.
The group is well known for its Buy-a-Brick campaign, which gives donors a chance to buy engraved bricks for $60 or more, which are then embedded in the promenade.
Several sections of the promenade are in place, including a recent $1.8 million resurfacing of the Broadway Pier.
The endowment is now moving ahead on its plan to install a total of 40 educational markers by the time the promenade is completed -- perhaps by late 1994. Made of aluminum and wood with porcelain enamel finishes, the 4-foot-tall signboards cost about $15,000 each, including a reserve for upkeep and replacement. They contain graphics, maps and text designed to allow passers-by to take self-guided tours of the waterfront.
"These are the beads of the necklace that is the promenade," said Roxanne Ward Zaghab, the endowment's executive director.
"In and of itself, if you throw up a couple of signs, it's not such a big deal. But as part of a system that tells the history of the harbor and captures its importance as a natural resource, this is an important link.
"We'd like to get more people to use the harbor as a classroom," she explained. "That was the original concept of this promenade. With these signs, the promenade becomes an attraction in and of itself."
Baltimore is one of the few waterfront cities whose officials made a policy decision to provide public access all along a shoreline, even to areas that were off-limits for decades, said architect Robert Quilter. He works for the Department of Housing and Community Development, which has been instrumental in implementing the project.
The plaques build on that commitment, Mr. Quilter said, by making a walk along the waterfront more than a recreational experience. "It's like a museum exhibit in the way it gives you an overview of the area."
The first plaques discuss ecology -- the Chesapeake Bay watershed and tidal marshes. Wetlands once dominated Baltimore's shoreline, according to a plaque on Lancaster Street west of Central Avenue. "Only a fraction of these marshes remains," it says, noting that they were replaced by bulkheads and piers to allow ships to berth.
Near the Canton Waterfront Park, a marker explains: "All land that slopes toward the Chesapeake Bay is its watershed." Other ZTC plaques stand near the south end of Broadway Pier in Fells Point. Funds are earmarked for another in Canton and one near Little Italy.
The endowment's sign committee, headed by architect Barbara Wilks, chooses locations and themes. The plaques are reviewed by the Mayor's Promenade Task Force, headed by Housing Commissioner Robert Hearn. The design is by Two Twelve Associates of New York. Fells Point resident Sharon Bondroff writes the text, after consulting with local experts.
The endowment is also raising money to erect 10-foot-tall "community anchor" signs to identify neighborhoods and other points of interest.
Ms. Zaghab said one goal of the fact plaques is to provide tangible evidence that the endowment is capable of significant projects deserving public support. A larger goal, she said, is to encourage people to seek information about the harbor.
Medical tower on the horizon
The University of Maryland Medical Center will break ground Monday at 11 a.m. for the Homer Gudelsky Tower.
The 149-bed, $89 million medical facility is to open by late 1994 at the northwest corner of Greene and Lombard streets.