Reclaiming an urban refuge

Improvement: By September, visitors to the Baltimore Zoo will again be able to enjoy the serenity of the Boat Lake in Druid Hill Park.

May 31, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

It is a forgotten lake at the edge of an urban wilderness.

For decades, until vandalism forced Baltimore to fence off more than 100 acres of Druid Hill Park in 1970, Boat Lake was a place where lovers escaped the sweat and filth of city summers to row on a pond shaded by trees.

Abandoned by humans, the 3-acre lake with its castle-like pavilion became a refuge for warblers flying south instead of workers fleeing the clock.

During years of neglect, the roof of the shelter rotted. Termites devoured a pillar. Paint flaked, the walkway crumbled, and eventually, Baltimore Zoo officials who manage that section of the park declared the pavilion unsafe.

But visitors will soon re-enter what the zoo has transformed into a bird sanctuary.

In the first part of a roughly four-year plan to renovate several sections of the zoo, workers last week began a $170,000 project to restore the 1908 Boat Lake Pavilion and paths around the lake, said Thomas M. Costello, the zoo's deputy director.

The state-funded project, expected to be finished by autumn, includes a study of the lake to see whether the zoo should reintroduce rowboats, Costello said.

"It's easy to forget about places like this, but this was an important part of the life of the city early in this century," said Costello. "It was a place to go where the city would just fade away."

During the next 90 days,workers will repair the roofs, add lights, fix the walkways, repaint the pavilion and replace a section of the structure eaten by insects, said Roger Katzenberg, an architect with Baltimore-based Kann and Associates, which is managing the restoration.

By September, zoo patrons will be able to sit beneath the shelter's large wooden beams to picnic or simply enjoy the view of the lake.

Surprising news

"This project will really bring the Boat Lake Pavilion back into the public's eye," said Katzenberg. "The zoo had fenced it off because they thought it was going to fall over. They couldn't believe it when we told them the structure was in decent shape."

The pavilion restoration follows a roughly $750,000 project two years ago to renovate the 1801 Mansion House, an estate sold to the city in 1860 to form the center of Druid Hill Park and later used as the zoo administration building.

In addition, during the next few years, the zoo hopes to spend more than $1 million on several other improvements, Costello said. Curators plan to improve the habitats for the Siberian tigers, snow leopards and red pandas. Also scheduled for restoration is a former exhibition hall built in 1876 and used by the zoo for educational programs.

The revival of the Boat Lake Pavilion brings back memories for older Baltimoreans who remember when postcards featured couples rowing on the lake.

"I think it's great that it's being fixed up," said Walter Sondheim, 90, a senior adviser to the Greater Baltimore Committee who grew up in Bolton Hill and recalls the lake from when he was about 10.

`A great asset'

"I remember when I was a kid, one of our great treats was to get out there in a rowboat," he said. "The lake is a great asset to the city."

The wooded hills around the lake were never completely abandoned. After the city raised a three-mile chain-link fence around the lake and zoo, birders continued coming to watch more than 20 species that nest in the area, including orioles, spotted sandpipers, bobolinks and grebes.

The zoo also continued to use a hill and a newer shelter above the lake as picnic grounds for schoolchildren.

The entrance to the lake is a path through a gate near the zoo's main entrance.

Until workers removed some of the overgrown shrubbery in recent years, tourists strolling by had a hard time seeing the water.

The reason for its disappearance is somewhat shameful.

Attacks by vandals

During the late 1960s, vandals repeatedly sneaked into the zoo at night to attack animals. In 1969, attackers stoned, killed or maimed 86 birds and mammals.

Someone shot a deer with an arrow. Sea lions were poisoned. The legs of flamingos were broken, and penguins' eggs were smashed, according to news reports from the early 1970s.

It was a crime wave that disgusted supporters of America's third-oldest park, designed in 1860 during a national movement to introduce rural serenity into urban areas, according to a 1995 city report called "Renewing Druid Hill Park."

"This is a sensitive subject, because some people in the area have hard feelings that the lake was fenced off," said Ann McKee, an architect working on the project. "But the zoo didn't have any choice."

Through the restoration, the zoo hopes to reintroduce the lake to the neighborhood and to the city -- even as it remains within the sheltered perimeter of the zoo.

"Through this project, we are trying to say, `Hello, the lake is alive and accessible to the people of the city and the region,' " Costello said.

Pub Date: 5/31/99

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