Updating the Top of the World

URBAN LANDSCAPE

August 05, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Five years have passed since Baltimore's historic Tower Building was dismantled for "future development." Gone, too, are the McCormick spice factory, News American headquarters and Allied-Signal plant.

But all of them can still be seen at the Top of the World Observation Level and Museum, the popular lookout on the 27th floor of the World Trade Center at 401 E. Pratt St.

Since it opened in 1979, the observation level has featured photographic panels that replicate the views visitors see from the five-sided building, billed as the world's largest pentagon.

In the beginning, each panel was labeled to name the landmarks of downtown Baltimore.

But the skyline changed, and the panels didn't.

Besides presenting images that might best be reserved for the next edition of author Carleton Jones' "Lost Baltimore," the panels omit such blockbusters as Commerce Place, HarborView and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

They also give out-of-date names -- Union Trust Tower, Baltimore Federal Financial Building -- for buildings associated with financial institutions that have either gone out of business or merged with others. Unfortunately, visitors may come away with misinformation about Baltimore from a public attraction that should have its facts straight.

That's just one of the reasons operators are launching a campaign to renovate this 14-year-old museum-in-the-sky.

This week, the Schmoke administration began searching for a design team to upgrade the 11,000-square-foot attraction, which draws 200,000 people a year.

"We want to reinvent the Top of the World," said director Robert Murrow. "We've been talking about it for years. Now we've got to put our feet in the water."

Mr. Murrow is working with the Baltimore Development Corp. and the Office of Promotion to plan a renovation that will help the Top of the World maintain its status as "a first-class Inner Harbor attraction" and educational resource.

They're seeking designers who can work with the city to provide a stronger theme for the Top of the World -- one perhaps based more on the city's geography than its history. A start date for construction will depend on the final design and the success of a proposed fund drive.

"The main attraction is the view," Mr. Murrow said. "We'd like to use the exhibits as a context to reinforce what you see when you look out the window. That's what we have that no one else has."

This will be the first major overhaul for the exhibits, which focus on subjects such as "Building Baltimore" and "Founding Fathers." Many seem static compared to the new interactive exhibits at other harbor attractions, such as the holograms and high-tech video alcoves at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

Other problems: The gift shop is too prominent, and its displays of dinosaur key chains, souvenir fudge and "Inner Harbor Polo Club" T-shirts detract from the serious exhibits nearby. The Sister Cities exhibit is little more than a three-dimensional

scrapbook about Gov. William Donald Schaefer's trips abroad. Many areas aren't easily accessible to people in wheelchairs.

This overhaul is long overdue. With a $2 admission charge for adults ($1 for children and seniors), the Top of the World has always been one of the best values in town. But like an old phone book, its value diminishes when it is out of date.

At the same time, its shortcomings don't necessarily mar the visitor's impression of Baltimore, judging by signatures in the registration book near the exit.

"Awesome," scribbles George Collins of Pittsburgh.

"Merveilleux" says Seys Baudonin of Paris, France.

"Cowabunga," comment Sheryl and Bobby Scheidel of Colchester, Conn.

"Wonderful time with friend," writes Lucille Victor of Glassboro, N.Y.

A creative renovation will make this attraction even more wonderful.

So many high-rise condos have gone on the auction block in recent years that some people are waiting for one to be held for the HarborView towers in South Baltimore as well. But developer Richard Swirnow says it's not going to happen.

"We had our auction," he said, referring to a public sale on Dec. 21, 1986, when his team first secured the HarborView site with a bid of $21.3 million.

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