Artful compromise

July 10, 1995

The controversy over the George Sugarman sculpture at the entrance to the Garmatz Federal Courthouse in downtown Baltimore is one of the city's longer-running disputes. The federal judges say the brightly colored metal structure detracts from the dignity of the court. Yet many people think the piece is a welcome relief from the relentless grayness of the federal building.

Then came a bombshell from U.S. Marshal Scott A. Sewell, who called Mr. Sugarman's work a security risk in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing and asked that it be removed. Marshal Sewell said that terrorists could turn the metal sculpture into a giant bomb by planting explosives near it. The complaint smacked suspiciously of a ploy by those in the courthouse who don't like the art work: Having failed to get rid of it on aesthetic grounds, they simply declared it a security threat.

A few days later, though, President Clinton issued an order calling for tighter precautions at federal buildings. Even skeptics conceded he had a point. A panel of architects came up with a series of sweeping changes that, in effect, offer a little something for everybody.

Under the new plan, a grassy, park-like pedestrian plaza would replace the existing semicircle brick driveway in front of the building to establish a sense of a "town common." Inside, a redesigned lobby would showcase the 8-foot, 7-inch bronze statue of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall which presently stands unnoticed along Pratt Street with its back to the flow of traffic. Finally, the Sugarman sculpture would move from the courthouse front to the plaza.

The panel's approach is a classic example of taking a lemon and making lemonade. It would rescue the Marshall statue from the shameful neglect it now suffers, while moving the Sugarman sculpture far enough away from the main entrance to placate the federal judges. It's probably no coincidence the political trade-offs balance so nicely -- even Mr. Sugarman has said the new siting will display his work to better advantage -- but the Oklahoma bombing appears to have provided the proverbial necessity that is the mother of invention. It's a pity only that Justice Marshall did not live long enough to see his likeness take its well-deserved place in the courthouse lobby.

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