Polishing the city's rough diamond


In the next few years, nearly $300 million in improvements are expected to boost the Mount Vernon area.


The two-story carriage house at 5 E. Centre St. has been used as an architect's office, a children's theater workshop and a beauty salon.

But this fall it will reopen as a bookstore and cafe affiliated with the Peabody Institute, whose main campus is across the street. Next to it will be Jordan Kitt's Piano Salon, a branch of Jordan Kitt's Music of Cockeysville, and office space for start-up technology companies affiliated with Peabody.

"It's great space," said Peabody director Robert Sirota during a recent tour of the buildings. "It's just right for what we want to do."

These are just a few of the nearly $300 million worth of capital improvements coming to the Mount Vernon area over the next several years, as institutions large and small take steps to transform the historic district into a "cultural campus" for central Maryland and beyond.

Five years ago, city officials launched a campaign to turn the Howard Street corridor into an "Avenue of the Arts," patterned roughly after Philadelphia's transformation of Broad Street. Although that effort failed to take hold, many civic leaders never gave up on the idea of using the arts as a magnet for Baltimore.

The latest plan is not to create an avenue of attractions but to promote and build on the institutions that are already clustered in an 18-block area bounded roughly by Howard, Mulberry, Calvert and Chase streets.

According to the Mount Vernon Cultural District, a nonprofit group formed in 1996 to promote and enhance the area, these cultural institutions alone are planning to invest more than $150 million between now and 2003 for capital improvements to facilities in the immediate area.

Creating a destination

Among the biggest projects: a $59 million expansion and restoration of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, an $18.5 million renovation of the Walters Art Gallery's 1974 building, a $15 million expansion of the Maryland Historical Society and more than $12 million in improvements to the Basilica of the Assumption and the Peabody Institute.

Another $125 million worth of expenditures is planned or contemplated by private property owners in the area for related projects, including new or refurbished housing and office space. And the cultural consortium plans to seek another $22.5 million in public funds to upgrade the general area, including such enhancements as benches, planters, lighting and landscaping.

The proposed total investment of $295 million is one of the highest concentrations of capital investment in any area in the city -- not much less than the $350 million planned for improvements on the west side of downtown Baltimore.

The cultural group had nine founding partners: Walters Art Gallery, Peabody Institute, Enoch Pratt Free Library, Basilica of the Assumption, Center Stage, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Maryland Historical Society, Municipal Arts Society and Baltimore Community Foundation. The Baltimore Sun Co. and the Morris Goldseker Foundation joined within a year.

Seeking ways to draw more people to the Mount Vernon Cultural District and increase the time they spend there, the arts consortium hired Design Collective of Baltimore to create a master plan for improving the area's appearance and making it more visitor-friendly.

Jamie Hunt, executive director of the district, said many people tend to go to one attraction, such as the Walters Art Gallery or the Maryland Historical Society, and then leave. He said his group would like to encourage people to consider the entire area as a destination and see more than one attraction at a time, as they do at Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

An 'unheard of' transformation

"People clearly like to walk around," he said. "They just want to know where to go. ... We're looking for a plan that knits it all together."

Hunt said the architects have been asked to recommend ways the individual projects can fit together to create one coherent cultural campus. They also will recommend ways to improve the streetscape, including prototypes for a series of signs and directories that will help guide visitors through the area.

The study is expected to cost $110,000. Final recommendations are due by October.

The amount of investment in the arts, in such a compact area as Mount Vernon, ought to make a dramatic difference in the way people perceive the area, said Connie Caplan, chairman of the cultural district.

"If you talk about the Basilica and the Walters and the Historical Society and the Peabody and the Pratt library and where they're going to be in the next five years, I think you're talking about a transformation that, among American cities, is unheard of," she said. "The increase in visitors is going to be tremendous."

Another important difference is that the cultural organizations are now working together, she noted. As a result, "there's a synergy here that is finally visible. You always knew it was there. But now you can feel it. ... It's becoming real."

The timing is fortuitous too, Sirota noted, because so much is happening at once.

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