Her job: setting the style for City Hall Davis guards building's historical integrity

November 02, 1998|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

She's the keeper of Baltimore's City Hall, armed not with weapons but with a set of rules and a charge to preserve the beauty and integrity of one of the city's rare gems.

And when Jeanne March Davis enforces the rules -- as she did recently when she objected to the City Council's new chairs -- it sometimes strikes a nerve. But Davis, City Hall's curator, said with a warm smile that she's just trying to maintain the historical character of the building.

"If you aren't careful, you end up with everybody's taste," Davis said. "You end up with a mess."

That, to Davis, would be contrary to the will of Baltimoreans, who in November 1974 approved a $9.5 million bond issue to renovate City Hall and preserve it, rather than build a new one. The people's decision meant Baltimore's 122-year-old executive and legislative building would remain one of the oldest continually used city halls in the country.

"Part of [Davis'] job is to make that $10 million investment last," said former City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who fought -- and lost -- a battle with Davis over the council chamber's chairs a decade ago. "Her job and the work she's done is invaluable."

As curator, Davis, 44, runs City Hall's gallery exhibits, gives tours to schoolchildren, organizes musical performances, handles gifts sent from Baltimore's sister cities, and restores deteriorating parts of the building.

Davis' power comes from administrative rule AM-112-2, "Maintaining the Aesthetic Appearance of City Hall." It requires the curator's approval for any physical changes to the building; for new or replacement furniture in a style different from the standards established for City Hall; new or replacement pictures, art objects or plaques; and exhibits.

"Unauthorized furnishings (desks, lamps, chairs, tables, etc.) will be removed by the Bureau of General Services," according to the rules. But the ultimate authority is in the hands of the mayor, for whom the curator works.

"These types of issues of furniture and design can be controversial," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Davis has run the curator's office for 15 years. While there, she met her husband, Patrick Davis, who works in the city's print shop. They have three sons, Zachary, 11, Liam, 9, and Timothy, 5.

In 1982, she left a job teaching English and became assistant curator at City Hall on the recommendation of a friend.

Two years later, Davis became curator, a job that requires her to hang plaques in council members' offices some days and organize restoration projects at other times.

For example, the Maryland chapter of the National Society of United States Daughters of 1812 asked the city in February to restore a bronze eagle at the front of City Hall, which the organization donated to the city 84 years ago.

Pigeon droppings, weather and time had worn the finish on the statue. Davis coordinated the project and had the eagle restored to its former luster, winning praise from the Daughters of 1812.

She also has had her battles, such as the recent tiff over the chairs. But Davis handles it all with the skills of a diplomat, working to balance her mission to preserve City Hall's character with the needs and desires of the city's workers.

"This is a working building, and people's needs must prevail," said Davis.

She just doesn't see Council President Lawrence A. Bell III's choice of chairs as a need. She would prefer chairs with lower backs and a wood color that doesn't clash with the desks, as the armrests on Bell's chairs do.

"The people in this building lose sight of the fact that they are not here forever," Davis said. "It doesn't belong to them. It belongs to the citizens of Baltimore."

Most council people and City Hall workers say they understand what Davis is trying to do.

"I like Jeanne March Davis," Bell said with a grin. "I would prefer her not to take things to the n-th degree, but that's her job. I appreciate what she does, though. I sometimes wish we had a clearer understanding of what's historical."

The City Council chair dispute has yet to come to an end. The mayor isn't taking a position on the issue but said he hopes the council and the administration can come to an amicable solution.

"They needed the chairs," Schmoke said. "We'll just have to work with them to make sure a compromise is reached."

Pub Date: 11/02/98

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