Expanded center debuts Friday $151 million project to be unveiled with gala

open house is Sunday

September 03, 1996|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

Far beneath the bustle of Pratt Street, the vast subterranean wonder -- a concrete wilderness big enough for nearly five football fields -- sits empty and silent, in waiting.

At last, three years after unearthing the first of 12,000 dump trucks full of dirt, the armies of construction workers have disappeared from the Baltimore Convention Center's newly expanded exhibit space.

Soon, the 185,000 square feet of space will buzz anew with great masses of humanity sharing common callings and avocations -- veterinarians and vacuum cleaner dealers, surgeons and square dancers, funeral directors and science fiction writers. From all over America and even abroad, they'll come by the thousands to sell and schmooze, to exchange trade secrets and dissect scientific research.

And they'll do it all 20 feet to 30 feet underground.

Thus, the design of the $151 million expansion -- more than twice the size and three times the cost of the original -- obscures from public view the most important space in one of the most expensive publicly financed projects ever in Baltimore: Seen from street level, the glass-dominated facades offer not so much as a hint of the existence of the new exhibit space.

Building down instead of up helped designers avoid the warehouse-like appearance that once defined convention centers and not so long ago, stigmatized them as among the least attractive of downtown public buildings.

"We were able to avoid that boxy look," said George Loschky, the expansion's lead architect, "by burying the box."

But as always, the Seattle architect said, practical needs preceded inspiration and innovation. Because of the gradual upward slope of Pratt Street, keeping existing and expanded exhibit space on one level, as huge conventions and trade shows demand, entailed going underground. There, new space connects with the existing 115,000 square feet of exhibit space.

Similarly, customer needs inspired the building's most distinctive feature -- an elaborate truss system resembling a series of

adjoining triangles, covered with wallboard and painted white, that dominate the building inside and out. Exhibitors abhor obstructions, so convention center staff insisted on virtually column-free new exhibit space. They got it. With the steel truss network dispersing the building's weight, only four columns between the floor and the 30-foot ceiling interrupt the view of the entire 185,000 square feet of new exhibit space.

Completion of the expansion comes at a crucial crossroads for the center, opening as cities nationwide expand convention space at a record pace to keep up with demands of the $83 billion-a-year meetings industry.

Without the additional space, convention bureau leaders have long argued, Baltimore would lose millions of dollars a year in business to competitors such as Philadelphia, which opened a new center with 440,000 square feet of exhibit space in 1993, and Washington, which plans a new center with nearly twice that amount. By comparison, Baltimore's expansion will increase total exhibit space to 300,000 square feet with completion of renovations to the original center in April, while the entire building will total 1.2 million square feet.

"When you realize what an incredibly competitive market this is, it's a matter of expanding or becoming obsolete," said Elissa Myers, vice president of the American Society of Association Executives.

The four-story expansion, linked to the three-story original on the exhibit floor and through connecting corridors on the third floor, complements, incorporates and builds on some of the key features of the original, Loschky says.

Outdoor terraces, a popular feature of the existing center, await just beyond the glass on the Conway, Howard and Pratt street sides. Some feature trees and built-in seating.

A registration area just above the Pratt Street entrance provides a dramatic greeting in an area as big as a football field that affords splendid views of the city, and the trusses appear almost as sculpture in the spacious corridors outside 50 new meeting rooms.

Topping it all off: a 36,000-square-foot ballroom, Maryland's largest, on another glass-encased level.

The open feel of the place is no accident. From the beginning, state, city and convention bureau leaders and designers wanted an addition with a strong sense of a uniquely Baltimore setting.

"Inside a lot of convention centers, you could be in any city and have no idea where you are," said Bruce Hoffman, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

"But when you're in this Convention Center, you'll know you're in Baltimore because you can see it everywhere with all that glass."

From his fifth-floor office across the street at the Camden Yards warehouse, Hoffman has closely watched the expansion as it gradually emerged from a hole in the ground. "I had to see it happening," he said. "I wanted to be able to look out and see it and know the work was getting done on schedule, every day."

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