Amphitheater for Federal Hill Park

October 15, 1997|By Fred B. Shoken

This article is one in an occasional series that examines underused properties in Baltimore, suggesting how they can be redeveloped.

PREVIOUS ARTICLES in this series have been abouconverting an empty building or vacant lot into a new use. This one suggests an improvement to an existing city park.

My intention is not to alter the overall design or the predominant use of Federal Hill Park, but to suggest how a seldom-used portion of the park can be changed to promote greater activity.

Federal Hill has always been an important gathering spot. In 1792, Baltimore celebrated the ratification of the Constitution on this hill overlooking the town; hence the name Federal Hill.

Artists, and later photographers, produced dramatic views of Baltimore from this spot. Despite an ill-conceived plan in the 19th century to level the hill and use the debris to fill the harbor and a 20th century proposal to bisect it with a highway bridging the harbor, Federal Hill remains sacrosanct as park land in the heart of the city.

Any change to the hill may be considered heresy to those who live near the park and love it. However, the least-used portion of the park -- its eastern slope -- has the potential of becoming Baltimore's finest outdoor amphitheater.

Many years ago, the city sponsored a series of evening concerts at Mount Royal Station. Most people are familiar with the location -- it is the premier outdoor stage area during Artscape.

That sloping lawn provides a natural amphitheater where people can sit on blankets and enjoy picnics while listening to a concert. Crowds estimated at 10,000 are sometimes said to attend concerts at Mount Royal.

The eastern slope of Federal Hill Park is more suited for this use than Mount Royal Station.

The western and northern slopes of the hill are more visible, yet steeper. They cannot be actively used, but create an aesthetic backdrop to the harbor and the houses of Montgomery Street.

Gentle slope

The eastern slope, however, is expansive, with a gentle slope ending at Covington Street. The slope is three times the size of the hill at Mount Royal Station. If 10,000 people gather there for Artscape, more than 30,000 could be accommodated on the eastern slope of Federal Hill.

A nearly windowless industrial building just south of the Visionary Museum is the perfect backdrop for performances. The building, a possible future expansion site for the museum, could be renovated to provide a stage, lighting and sound speakers facing the slope of the park. A curtain could be installed for grand entrances.

A screen could be constructed for video displays. Within the building, a waiting room for performers could be installed to provide direct access to the stage.

Overuse of any natural amphitheater would damage the lawn. But an occasional concert at this location would not be harmful to the park nor would it greatly disrupt the surrounding community.

It would be a waste of community resources not to allow this natural space to be used to its fullest potential.

A 400-car parking lot across Key Highway would be available to people attending events at the amphitheater. Other visitors would be encouraged to park downtown and walk or commute by water taxi or shuttle bus.

Events would be free to the public in order to avoid fencing the hill.

An annual Fourth of July concert of patriotic music could be performed here. The concert would be preceded by afternoon picnics at Fort McHenry (a short bus or water-taxi trip away) and the finale would be the annual fireworks display at the Inner Harbor.

The American Visionary Art Museum could help drum up attendance by sponsoring a summer evening series of experimental films at the Federal Hill amphitheater. A summer afternoon concert series of avant-garde music could coincide with exhibits at the museum.

Is there a musical equivalent to visionary art? Should concerts be called auditory sensations of self-taught musicians who follow the beat of a distant drummer -- or just plain folk music?

Fred B. Shoken is a historian.

Pub Date: 10/15/97

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