High hopes in Mount Vernon Alliance: Cultural institutions unite to give historic downtown district a distinct, attractive character.

December 18, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

Declaring that Mount Vernon can be a tourist destination second only to the Inner Harbor, nine institutions in the Baltimore neighborhood are banding together to spruce up the area and promote its historic and cultural attractions.

The group, calling itself the Mount Vernon Cultural District Committee, is scheduled to announce its plans tomorrow. Its vision begins with more street lighting and signs promoting attractions and grows to include transportation links with the Inner Harbor, sidewalks dotted with cafes and overnight tourist packages complete with admission tickets and hotel discounts.

"We have a naturally occurring cultural center right here," says Connie Caplan, a board member of the Municipal Arts Society, who heads the group. "We don't have to build a Kennedy Center: We have the Walters, the Basilica, the Pratt, the Peabody, the Maryland Historical Society -- all right here."

The effort is the first time these Baltimore institutions, many of which are involved in major fund-raising drives, have worked together formally. It represents a realization that public institutions, particularly those in urban neighborhoods, face similar challenges.

"We have to give confidence to those people who support us that we are going to be here five to 10 years from now, and we're going to grow," Caplan says.

Their alliance is also part of a national trend. As federal support for the arts dwindles, cultural institutions increasingly are joining forces to market themselves as tourist destinations.

For example, art groups in Atlanta capitalized on the Olympics last summer by aggressively marketing major exhibitions. And in Philadelphia, the art museum worked with the local government, other cultural institutions, restaurants and hotels to promote the city as a vacation spot during its blockbuster show "Cezanne."

"Culture as a tourist attraction is the buzzword of the '90s," says Robert Sirota, director of Johns Hopkins University's Peabody Institute.

The focal point of the new cultural district is Mount Vernon Place, located at the intersection of Charles and Monument streets and widely considered one of the great urban spaces in the United States.

Once the neighborhood of Baltimore's elite, the sidewalks here are lined with 19th-century buildings designed by prominent architects of that time: Stanford White, Robert Mills, John Russell Pope, Edmund G. Lind.

The area's crowning glory is the Washington Monument -- 178 feet of Cockeysville marble perched near the top of a hill. Completed in 1829, it is the nation's first major monument to George Washington, as many Baltimoreans hasten to remind visitors.

Surrounding the monument is a sloping park with grassy patches, fountains and statues by artists such as William Wentmore Story, William Henry Rinehart, Grace Turnbull and Antoine-Louis Barye.

The Mount Vernon committee includes six public institutions: the Walters Art Gallery, the Maryland Historical Society, the Peabody Institute, the Basilica of the Assumption, Center Stage and the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Other members are the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization; the Baltimore Community Foundation, a collection of charitable funds that serves the metropolitan area; and the Municipal Arts Society, a 98-year-old association that supports efforts to beautify the city.

The arts society provided $5,000 in start-up money. Each institution matched that amount, and the community foundation has committed to giving $25,000.

By February, the committee plans to establish itself as a tax-exempt organization and to hire a staff person. It already has hired Boston-based landscape design firm Sasaki Associates to assess the district's needs.

The firm details a plan for developing Mount Vernon Place as a historic and cultural stopping point for tourists from Maryland, Washington and nearby states. Its report addresses several key areas, including:

Security. It calls on the city to put more police officers in the area and suggests that institutions require staff security to patrol outside their buildings and communicate with each other. It also encourages institutions to provide valet parking and proposes working with the Downtown Partnership to expand the video surveillance in place at the harbor and along Howard Street.

Streetscape. It calls for replacing sidewalks in the district with more visually interesting materials, replacing existing street lights with more natural and brighter lighting, and illuminating the entire length of Charles Street with better, more consistent lighting. The plan also suggests exploring the creation of an outdoor food service at the northern end of Mount Vernon Place.

Signs: It proposes hiring a designer to create a master plan for consistent signs in the district, including highly visible "gateways" to the district at major entry points and signs that would direct visitors from one institution to another.

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