Schaefer's ideas of how buildings should look dot state's landscape The Cornerstone of his Administration

January 16, 1995|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

When William Donald Schaefer leaves his job as governor on Wednesday, he'll also relinquish a second job he carved out for himself -- master architect of Maryland.

Although the governor has taken considerable ribbing for having an "edifice complex," few people know how deeply involved he has been in making design decisions that shape the buildings Marylanders see and use every day.

Few have observed the zeal with which he scrutinizes plans for the latest municipal plaza or rest stop or bike path, or his visceral reactions when he doesn't like what he sees.

After reviewing a designer's plan last year to adorn the plaza leading to the World Trade Center in Baltimore with a giant globe, for example, he couldn't contain his displeasure. "That's about as exciting as a bucket of warm spit," he fumed afterward. The result, unveiled on New Year's Eve, was a $341,000 lighting system that turned the entire building into a beacon.

Aesthetic confrontations can be unpleasant, but they get the point across: For eight years, Governor Schaefer has been the man in charge, the one to please.

Since taking office in January 1987, he has blanketed the state with hundreds of buildings, bridges and other structures, representing an investment of more than $1 billion in public funds. And state buildings planned during his tenure will be opening around Maryland through 1999 -- at least.

It could be argued that the buildings created during the Schaefer era constitute his most lasting legacy. More than any of his predecessors, he has changed the face of Maryland.

"Every corner of the state, we touched," he boasts. "We took a state that had been sort of sitting still for eight years and enlivened it."

Tangible symbols

Any list of Mr. Schaefer's greatest achievements in the realm of design would be headed by Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the fan-friendly ballpark that wiped out 50 years of bad stadium design and launched a national trend toward center city ballparks. It would also include some of the sophisticated academic buildings that have appeared on state campuses, such as Peter Bohlin's crescent-shaped student housing at St. Mary's College. The Schaefer administration completed Interstate 97, one of the most beautiful and fun-to-drive roads in the state.

There have been disappointments, too: the U.S. Naval Academy Bridge over the Severn River, three times higher than a span leading into historic Annapolis ought to be; the controversial makeover of the Governor's Mansion, in which rooms of priceless Maryland furniture and artifacts were dismantled in favor of a low-brow, Archie Bunker look; and the flawed central light rail line, which nearly finished off Howard Street in downtown Baltimore by eliminating cars from key portions of it.

But mere lists of best and worst can't come close to capturing Mr. Schaefer's architectural influence. Despite his reputation as a bricks-and-mortar politician, Mr. Schaefer's greatest impact lies the ideas he promoted and themes he stressed about the urban landscape, rather than with any individual structures that took shape during his watch or bear his name.

What sets Mr. Schaefer apart as a politician-builder is the way he views construction projects of all kinds. To him, buildings are never constructed merely to meet functional requirements. He believes they also have symbolic value, inherent meaning that could help him move ahead with his agenda.

"He always understood that people need to see things -- that in order for people to respond to a vision they need a tangible manifestation of that vision," said Sandy Hillman, an advertising executive and former promotions director for Baltimore. "Otherwise, it may be too abstract for people to understand."

Baltimore precedent

Much of this thinking was clearly ingrained in him during his years as mayor of Baltimore, when he developed a reputation as the mayor who fills potholes. When he went to Annapolis in 1987, he took that activity one step further. Instead of filling potholes with asphalt, he filled vacant land with new state-funded buildings. The sense of gratification was the same. Only the scale and nature of the project had changed.

Baltimore served as a precedent in another way. Mr. Schaefer's greatest triumph as a builder came with a series of blockbuster projects that opened in rapid succession during the late 1970s and early 1980s: The Convention Center, Harborplace, the National Aquarium, the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the Metro subway system.

That string of openings showed how physical development can alter not only the look of a city or region, but its psyche. In many respects, Mr. Schaefer's career as a builder has often seemed to be a continual effort to return to that summer day in 1980 when half a million people turned out for the debut of Harborplace.

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