Renovating the Walters

March 12, 1994

Architectural overreach may be at the core of the glitches uncovered in the Walters Art Gallery's 1974 building: a climate-control system that does not maintain the steady temperature and humidity levels needed to preserve works of art, and ceiling-mounted "reheater" coils that drip water and oil on the floor below. One wonders why a building barely 20 years old has developed so many problems it is untenable for its original purpose.

To be sure, some of the blame belongs to the Walters' management. In recent years, the museum apparently has been so focused on the renovation of the 1904 building and the Hackerman House conversion that crucial maintenance on the newer wing was deferred.

As a result, officials now estimate the cost of repairing the building at about $4 million, with another $2 million needed for reinstalling the museum's priceless collection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman works and its medieval and Islamic art. Officials presently are looking at a timetable that calls for construction to take 12 months, with another six months for the reinstallation.

Though the building is plagued by built-in flaws -- the odd placement of the "reheater" coils that circulate air throughout the building, for example, or the unsafe railings in the museum's interior stairwells -- it's also true that museum standards have risen significantly in the years since 1974. Some of today's problems were not concerns then. That is why the front entrance wasn't built with an air lock to keep the temperature and humidity stable; similarly, the handicapped ramp at the Center Street entrance is too steep, but the regulation governing that wasn't adopted until 1991.

The city, which owns the museum, has a responsibility to help. The museum is seeking $1.5 million from the state legislature, and city voters will be asked to approve another $750,000 as part of a bond issue for cultural institutions that will be on the ballot in November. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the Baltimore legislative delegation are strongly supporting both measures. Meanwhile, additional money will be sought from the National Endowment for the Humanities and from private donors in a fund-raising campaign later this year.

The Walters is working hard to get itself through this crisis. Better to lend a hand to fix the problem now than jeopardize the future of one of this city's most important cultural institutions.

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