Campaign seeks new visitor center for Fort McHenry

September 12, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

Observing the bicentennial of the origins of Fort McHenry, and the Defender's Day anniversary of its famous bombardment, a citizens group launched a nationwide campaign to help keep Baltimore's star-shaped monument a tourist attraction for another 200 years.

As part of the annual ceremonies commemorating the 1814 Battle of Baltimore -- in which the city's defenders repulsed an invading British fleet and Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner" -- the Patriots of Fort McHenry announced its drive to raise $5.5 million to build a new visitor and education center for the fort.

The existing visitor center, a nondescript brick box built in 1962, can no longer accommodate the crowds that visit every year, said Alan R. Walden, president of the volunteer group.

"The current structure was built for an average of 150,000 visitors each year, but now we're seeing 600,000 to 700,000 a year, and the number keeps growing," he said. "We need a center that can handle more people and provide more room to exhibit artifacts that can't be displayed now."

The Patriots' $5.5 million drive is the second campaign announced this year to improve the fort. The federal government, which owns and operates the fort as part of the National Park Service, recently allocated $3 million to repair its crumbling brick walls.

The private campaign is welcome at a time when national parks around the country are facing a shortage of funds, said park Superintendent John W. Tyler.

"If we have to wait for the federal appropriations process" to design and build the visitor center, he said, "it could take a long time, because there are so many other needs nationwide. This is a way for us to move ahead more quickly."

Well-known as the home of the national anthem, the monument is also considered the finest example of fort design in North America. Strategically perched at the tip of the Locust Point peninsula, it is named for James McHenry, a Baltimore resident who was secretary of war under Presidents George Washington and John Adams.

In 1939, Fort McHenry was designated a national monument and historic shrine, the only park in the country to have that double distinction.

Last night, the Patriots unveiled a 46-inch-by-60-inch oil painting, prints of which will be sold to generate money needed to get the visitor center project under way.

"The Flag is Full of Stars" is the title of the painting, which shows Fort McHenry on the morning of Sept. 14, 1814, just after the famous 25-hour bombardment that proved to be a turning point in the War of 1812.

The painting depicts the moment that Maryland soldiers raised Mary Pickersgill's 42-foot-by-30-foot flag over the fort to signify their success in thwarting the British invasion. Maj. George Armistead, commander of the garrison at the fort, had asked for a flag that was "so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance."

Created by Gettysburg-based artist Dale Gallon, the painting is the first major work of art to focus on the battle in 50 years -- and the first to focus on the fort itself rather than the bombardment, according to Mr. Walden.

"There have been lots of paintings of the rockets' red glare and the bombs bursting in air," Mr. Walden said.

"We wanted to show McHenry and the flag and the people. We wanted to focus on the precise moment of victory, when the flag was raised for the first time. You can see hundreds of men cheering as the British depart.

"It's not only a Maryland picture, it's an American picture," he continued. "It's a transcendent moment in American history."

The proposed visitor center will be built on the site of the existing one, to prevent disruption to any archaeological treasures on the fort grounds.

To raise money for it, the Patriots are selling a limited edition of 950 prints of the painting, each numbered and signed by the artist.

For a contribution of $175 or more, donors receive an unframed print; for $350 or more, they receive a framed print that is ready to hang.

Prints may be purchased by visiting the fort or by contacting the Patriots at 625-2202.

The print sales are expected to raise $100,000 to $125,000. The money will be used to mount a design competition and hire an architect for the visitor center. Once a design is set, the Patriots will seek additional money from the public and private sectors to construct the building.

Mr. Walden said the painting is a good way to raise money because it adds to the body of information about the battle and provides a valuable keepsake for donors.

"We wanted something tangible, something that would last," he said. "We wanted something that itself would become part of Maryland history and the history of Fort McHenry."

Edwin F. Hale, chairman of the Bank of Baltimore, persuaded the bank's board to provide $20,000 to hire the artist.

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