Roving museum finds a home Historical Society will help convert Centre St. building

October 30, 1998|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

Nine years after it was established as Maryland's roving "museum without walls," the Contemporary Museum has found a permanent home -- with help from the Maryland Historical Society.

Leaders of the two cultural institutions announced yesterday that they will work jointly to convert the Home Mutual building at 104 W. Centre St. into Baltimore's newest arts center.

The first level will contain exhibit space and offices for the Contemporary Museum. The upper two floors and basement will become a state-of-the-art collections management facility and administrative offices for the historical society, which is one block west. The historical society will own the building.

The facility will be the latest addition to an emerging "arts row" along Centre Street that also includes the Walters Art Gallery and the Peabody Institute.

"For us, it is [a] wonderful opportunity to be situated between the Walters Art Gallery and the Maryland Historical Society," said Contemporary Museum director Gary Sangster. "It's a beautiful building and it's in very good condition."

Although the Contemporary will continue to mount exhibits around the region, the Centre Street building will be its permanent setting for educational activities and other programs, and will include some exhibit space. Sangster said he expects the move will help strengthen the museum's identity as a local arts institution.

"We're known as the museum without walls because we've organized mobile exhibits in a variety of places, and we're not moving away from that," he said. But "having a location that we can point to as our permanent base and that people can return to will help us. The question we hear most about the museum is, 'Where is it?' Now we'll have an address."

The expansion, to be designed by Ziger/Snead of Baltimore, also underscores the historical society's commitment to stay in and enhance the Mount Vernon historic district as a center for arts and culture, said executive director Dennis Fiori.

"We feel that maintaining a vibrant and lively streetscape, particularly on the Centre Street corridor between the Maryland Historical Society and the Walters Art Gallery, is very important for the neighborhood," he said. "We see this as part of the renaissance of the Mount Vernon cultural district."

The project also complements other redevelopment activity along Centre Street, including the Walters' $17 million renovation of its 1974 building, the soon-to-open Gallery Towers apartments at 111 E. Centre St. and Aegon Corporation's move into the former Hochschild Kohn building at Park Avenue and Centre Street.

Many arts patrons are discovering that the state's light rail line is a good way to get to the Mount Vernon area and that Centre Street is a convenient stop, said Jamie Hunt, executive director of Mount Vernon Cultural Center. "That's going to be reinforced by what's happening here."

Constructed in 1924, the 27,000-square-foot structure was known as the Home Friendly building until the insurance company changed its name to Home Mutual in 1957. Clad in granite and brick, it was designed by Clyde N. Friz, architect of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Scottish Rite Temple of Freemasonry.

The building became available for reuse when Home Mutual merged with the Baltimore Life Companies of Owings Mills on Oct. 1. Rather than list the building with a broker, the insurance executives agreed to sell it for $600,000 to the historical society, which is in the midst of a $20 million expansion of its campus at 201 W. Monument St.

The sale was to be completed by today. Baltimore Life contributed $125,000 of the $600,000 purchase price as a gift to the historical society, and the remaining $475,000 will be paid from funds raised in the society's capital campaign. In recognition of the gift, the historical society has agreed to keep Home Mutual's name on the exterior. Ziger/Snead is the architect for the Contemporary as well as the historical society.

The historical society plans to begin renovations immediately and expects to complete work by early spring.

Operating from 601 N. Howard St., the Contemporary has four employees and about 330 members. Its exhibits attract about 10,000 people a year.

Sangster said the Contemporary plans to lease about 3,500 square feet in the Home Mutual building beginning Jan. 1. He said he hopes to complete renovations in time to open the first public exhibit in the building next spring -- the museum's 10th anniversary.

Pub Date: 10/30/98

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