Cloisters to close on Sept. 4

June 17, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

After 17 years of operation, the Cloisters Children's Museum in Baltimore County will close permanently on Sept. 4 so its staff and board members can focus on opening a new children's museum near Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

After the Cloisters closes, the museum staff plans to stage events and outreach programs around the region to remain visible and help generate excitement for the much larger museum planned to anchor a $30 million National Children's Center at 34 Market Place.

Board members decided they would make more progress on the downtown project -- and could even speed up the construction timetable by as much as a year -- if they weren't simultaneously operating the old facility, said newly elected Chairman Douglas L. Becker.

Plans to close the Cloisters have been in the works for months and were not precipitated by charges filed last month by the state's Human Relations Commission that the museum discriminates against the disabled.

The commission was acting on a complaint by a disability rights activist that the exhibits in the building are not fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. The move should render that complaint moot because the new location on Market Place will be fully accessible, he added.

"This is not being done in a precipitous manner," Mr. Becker said. "There has to be a time when we cut the cords from the past and focus on the future. . . . The moment is upon us.

"Our goal is to develop and open by the end of 1996 a world-class educational attraction at 34 Market Place . . . that will be unique when compared to children's museums throughout the country," he continued. "It's a very aggressive timetable. In .. analyzing the fiscal issues, it did not make a lot of sense" to keep the Cloisters open.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, a strong supporter of the Market Place children's museum, concurred.

"It's time to focus on the new building," he said. "There are too many people who doubt that the vision will become a reality, and I'm convinced it will." Mr. Schmoke said the city, which owns the Cloisters property at 10440 Falls Road, will seek a new occupant for it. Clair List, director of the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture, will be involved in the search effort along with the city's Board of Estimates, the mayor said.

The building will remain open for wedding receptions and other catered events through December, and the city will continue to be responsible for maintaining it.

Built in 1930 on a 53-acre estate in Brooklandville, the Cloisters was bequeathed to Baltimore in 1977 by its original owners, art collectors Sumner A. Parker and G. Dudrea Parker. Named for the cloistered walkway that encloses a garden behind the stone house, it opened as a children's museum the same year and now draws 50,000 visitors annually.

The children's museum on Market Place will occupy 80,000 square feet inside the former Brokerage retail complex and is expected to draw more than 400,000 visitors a year.

To date, planners have raised $10 million for the museum, including $3 million from NationsBank and $2 million from the Maryland General Assembly. The city of Baltimore contributed the Brokerage, valued at $5 million.

The museum's estimated construction cost is $19.8 million. Other components of the $30 million National Children's Center include a retail area featuring goods and services for children, and office space for children's advocacy groups.

Mr. Becker, 28, is president of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. of Columbia. With more than 500 learning centers throughout the United States and Canada, it is considered the largest private sector education services firm in North America.

He was elected chairman of the museum's board at its annual meeting Monday.

Mr. Becker said the success of initial planning and fund-raising -- efforts has given the board confidence that the project will be ready to open by the end of 1996 -- or sooner. "We're off to a great start," he said.

In the meantime, the staff will operate as an "itinerant museum," sponsoring traveling exhibits and collaborating with other institutions on various projects, he said. After Labor Day, the museum's headquarters will be at 34 Market Place, he said.

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