Visitors center design approved

Inner Harbor gateway will provide better views of Constellation

June 25, 1999|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

The new stewards of the Constellation say they want to tear down an information center on Pier 1 that has been roundly criticized as an eyesore and replace it with a building that offers better views of the restored warship and a new gateway to Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

The Living Classrooms Foundation, a nonprofit organization that will operate the Constellation when it returns to the Inner Harbor next week after a $9 million restoration, received approval yesterday of preliminary plans for a two-story building from Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel.

The difference between the proposed structure and the 9-year-old Constellation Center is that the replacement would be practically see-through -- with walls of glass, rather than opaque materials -- and situated farther from the Constellation.

The new building would be constructed on the east side of the pier, rather than the west side, opening up views of the right side of the ship.

Members of the review panel praised the solution for improving views to and from the 1854 vessel.

"I think the transparency is terrific," said panel member Walter Ramberg.

Besides providing a small museum, gift shop, cafe and bridge leading to the Constellation, the proposed building will be a primary arrival point and ticketing center for the National Historic Seaport, a collection of waterfront attractions that are expected to draw more than 1 million people a year.

"We want people to think of the pier as a destination in itself, so even if they don't buy a ticket [to the Constellation] they can sit down someplace" and enjoy the harbor, said Gail Shawe, former chairwoman of the Constellation Foundation and now a member of the Living Classrooms Foundation.

"We would like to create a pier that is the gateway to the National Historic Seaport," said Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, vice president in charge of development for the Living Classrooms Foundation.

James Piper Bond, president of the Living Classrooms Foundation, said he did not have any firm cost estimates for the new building, but his organization plans to launch a fund drive and display drawings of it starting July 2, when the Constellation returns to Pier 1.

Depending on the success of fund-raising efforts, Bond said, the building could be open by next summer.

Shifting the location of the center allowed the design team to create a building that will contain all the spaces needed to serve Constellation visitors without obstructing views of the vessel itself, said Mario L. Schack, an architect working on the project in conjunction with the firm of Cho, Wilks and Benn.

"The building was heavily criticized for obstructing starboard views of the Constellation," Schack said. "The real breakthrough came when we looked at moving the building to the east side of the pier because views to the ship are revealed. It opens up all sorts of possibilities."

Schack, who designed the original building in 1990, said he wasn't permitted to put it on the east side of the pier at that time because that area was being used as a berth for harbor cruise ships. But those vessels no longer dock at the pier, and the mayor's office now supports the idea of constructing a building farther away from the frigate, he said.

The two-story building will be longer and narrower than the existing 5,000-square-foot structure, with slightly more space. It will include "orientation space," offices for Constellation staffers and an area for "display of artifacts."

The building's second level will be connected to the ship by a ramp, and the ramp will be accessible by an elevator so people in wheelchairs will have barrier-free access to the Constellation, he added.

The original building, constructed at a cost of $875,000, drew criticism from officials of the National Aquarium, Harborplace and other Inner Harbor destinations. In 1990 Benjamin Thompson, the architect of Harborplace, compared its construction to being "poked in the eye with a sharp stick."

The Constellation Foundation, which constructed the building on property leased from the city, has since merged with the Living Classrooms Foundation.

Before construction of the new building can begin, the Living Classrooms Foundation must raise the money needed to construct the building and have its lease for the pier altered to reflect the new location.

If sufficient funds can be raised in time, Shawe said, she would like to see construction begin this winter so the building will be ready by next summer. In the meantime, she said, the existing building will provide access to the Constellation, which is expected to draw 250,000 to 275,000 visitors a year.

Donations can be sent to the Living Classrooms Foundation at 802 S. Caroline St., Baltimore 21231.

Pub Date: 6/25/99

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