The Walters' sick building

March 15, 1994

The Walters Art Gallery's 1974 building has developed so many problems that it can no longer safely house the institution's priceless collection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman art. Officials estimate the total cost of repairs at about $6 million -- about half of which must be raised from city, state and federal governments.

The problems include a climate-control system that cannot maintain the steady temperature and humidity levels needed to preserve works of art, ceiling-mounted "reheater" coils that drip water and oil on the floor and unsafe or inadequate stairwells and handicapped access ramps.

Some of the problems were inherent in the original design of the building; others stem from stricter industry standards adopted in the intervening years and new federal regulations governing handicapped access. The largest share of problems, however, appears to be a result of the museum's management decisions over the years to defer major maintenance on the building.

Since the 1974 building was opened, the Walters has completed a major renovation of its original 1904 building and opened the new Hackerman House to display its collection of Asian art. The 1904 building, in particular, required extensive refurbishing to preserve it as a home for the museum's collection. Former director Robert Bergman brought tremendous energy to pushing these projects to completion. But one result of the intense focus on these recent undertakings may have been that less attention was paid to warning signs regarding the condition of the 1974 structure. That seems the only plausible explanation of why a building barely 20 years old is so sick it has become untenable for its original purpose.

Museum officials are seeking $1.5 million from the state legislature to put toward repairs, which are expected to take at least a year and a half including the job of reinstalling art which must be removed during the process. In addition, city voters will be asked to approve another $750,000 earmarked for repairs 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 supporting both measures. Museum officials will seek the rest of the money from the National Endowment for the Humanities and from private donors.

This is an embarrassing episode, but we are confident the Walters will get through the present crisis. And the city will do better by helping to fix the problem now rather than jeopardize the future of one of its most important cultural assets.

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