Artwork gone for now Sculpture: As the controversial metal artwork outside the federal courthouse left for a five-month makeover, some of its detractors hoped it wouldn't return.

October 09, 1997|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

For two decades, few people have understood the multicolored metal sculpture outside Baltimore's federal courthouse. Even fewer have liked it.

As workers at the Edward A. Garmatz federal courthouse finished dismantling "Baltimore Federal" yesterday and sent it away for a five-month makeover, many who work at the building expressed hope it would never return.

"I watched them load the last piece of the sculpture. I kept hoping it would fall off the back of the truck and get all crumpled up," said one courthouse clerk who did not want to be named, for fear of incurring the wrath of a U.S. District judge. "I hate that thing."

The 20-year-old structure will receive a $40,000 face-lift by artists in North Haven, Conn., and is due back in Baltimore by March.

Installed in front of the courthouse on Lombard Street in 1978, the 20-by-45-foot sculpture was intended to "express the relationship between the public and the courts, freedom and democratic equality," according to a small plaque that remains at the site.

After the entwined sculpture of red, blue, yellow and green metal was completed, the General Services Administration, which operates the Garmatz building and commissioned the artwork, praised sculptor George Sugarman for achieving "true public art in which the openness and accessibility of the forms, and the variety of experiences they allow, need no specific understanding."

The compliment endures to this day, inscribed on the plaque. But its meaning eludes most people.

"I don't get it. I thought it was a bird," said Frank Canapino of Precision Fabricators Inc., the North Haven company that will refurbish the piece. "I was told it was an eagle with a whale or a fish of some kind."

The lack of understanding and confusion surrounding the piece has made it a frequent subject of controversy -- the target of jokes, sneering and scorn.

In 1995, a panel of architects went so far as to recommend that "Baltimore Federal" be moved from the courthouse plaza, now a field of buckling bricks, to a shady corner. The proposed design change would allow for the creation of a grassy, parklike pedestrian courtyard. But that vision was never realized.

"I heard the plans changed after the Oklahoma City bombing," said courthouse clerk Nadine Mercer, referring to the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that killed 168 people and injured more than 500.

"I guess they were afraid that strangers would be drawn to the area," she said. "It's a shame, too, because a lot of people were looking forward to having a lounge area out front."

Instead of chairs and tables, the plaza is home to the many bolts and bricks that held "Baltimore Federal" in place, and a wooden barrier that prevents visitors from tripping over them.

It took Canapino and Huey Gaddy about 16 hours over the past two days to dismantle "Baltimore Federal." It will take them another five months to remove the tarnish that scars the sculpture and restore the piece to its original condition, Canapino said. The project will be paid for by GSA.

"A lot of people were saying they wished they had their cameras today, so they could get a picture of the sculpture as it left the plaza," said a hurried lawyer who would not identify himself. "Personally, I hope it never makes it back to Baltimore. It's the ugliest-looking thing I've ever seen."

Pub Date: 10/09/97

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