Rescued from the brink Review: President Street Station reopens as a Civil War museum after a preservation effort that had none too much to work with.

April 12, 1997|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

When visitors come to Baltimore's President Street train station, starting with the grand opening at noon today, they won't find the building restored to the exact appearance it had when Abraham Lincoln passed through. The ghosts are gone, and so is much of the patina.

Instead of taking the 1852 depot back to its original appearance, the owners and architects made a conscious decision to transform it into a different kind of structure -- a multimedia Civil War Museum intended to bring history alive for today's visitors and generations still to come.

This controversial approach can blur the lines between what is real and what is reproduction. When architects replace too much, they can rob a place of its sense of history. Williamsburg ends, and Walt Disney takes over.

In this case, too, preservation team members had to make tough choices involving every part of the building -- the roof, outer walls, interior. In the end, they made some compromises that are likely to leave visitors wondering what is real and what is Memorex. But nothing about preservation is tidy in an era when the public tends to prefer "themed architecture" and "invented environments" to the genuine artifact.

Given this building's advanced state of deterioration, the tight budget and the new use, it was those very compromises that enabled the team to "save" as much as it did, while leaving the door open for more work should money become available.

Flexible space

Unlike pristine preservation projects in which a building is relatively intact before work begins, President Street Station had little of its original fabric left to save, particularly inside. Its long wooden shed burned in 1978, and its roof had collapsed. When reconstruction work began, it was little more than a brick shell.

In response, the architects didn't try to turn the clock back entirely. Instead of replicating the exact look of the waiting room, for instance, they converted the first floor into a flexible space and filled it with displays and artifacts. The room has a vaguely 19th-century feel, with period windows and beaded woodwork, but the exhibits dominate the space.

Today, the completed project at 601 President St. is more like a one-room schoolhouse than a train station.

Visitors enter on the east side and walk counterclockwise around the room to view the exhibits, ending at a well-stocked gift shop. Along the way they learn of the April 19, 1861, Pratt Street riot that led to the first casualties of the Civil War and the secret Underground Railroad that slaves took to freedom.

A study in compromise

As designed by Kieran, Timberlake & Harris of Philadelphia, with Samuel Harris as partner in charge, the building works well. The exhibits, designed by Courtney Wilson, are lively and informative. But the $1.3 million project is also a study in preservation trade-offs. For example:

The front is now the back, and the back is the front. The building's entrance was on the west side when it was a passenger terminal. Visitors must now walk through a new vestibule attached to the east side. The designers didn't want people using the western entrance because that would have interfered with their layout for the exhibits.

Not all of the exterior walls were restored the same way. The north and west sides have essentially been taken back to their original appearance, and the south wall has been left alone. But the east wall has been covered in a synthetic stucco material. The architects determined that the original east wall was so porous that it would have to be rebuilt if it wasn't protected from the weather, hence, the stucco.

There's a hidden second floor. The interior originally had two levels, the main waiting room and the stationmaster's office above. By the 1990s, the building was so damaged that parts of the second floor were missing. The architects were tempted to tear it out and make one two-story space -- a contemporary approach.

On the other hand, a second level would give the building more meeting and storage space. In order to comply with federal laws for accessibility, though, the museum would have had to add stairs and an elevator, which it had neither the money nor the space to do. So planners ended up building back a second floor but provided no access to it. If funds ever become available, they say, it may be finished off. The low ceiling makes the exhibit space more oppressive than it might have been.

There were other compromises as well. The new cornice is made of Fypon -- a lightweight material that tends to look more "plastic" than wood looks. The interior cast-iron columns are original but carry no weight.

One of the saddest changes is the addition of anti-looting grilles that cover the first-floor windows. Some roll up in the day; others are permanently rolled down and visible from the exterior.

Preservationists' dilemma

Part of the preservationists' dilemma was that they had to determine how much to "restore" a building that wasn't very attractive to begin with.

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