Constellation returns as renewal symbol

Homecoming today: The 1854 warship sails back to Pratt Street pier after $7.3 million restoration.

July 02, 1999

THOSE WITH old memories of the Constellation -- an inspiration for Inner Harbor revitalization -- are in for a surprise.

The 1854 corvette, which returns to its Pratt Street berth today after a $7.3 million restoration, has been stripped of the extraneous regalia that tried to make it look like the 1797 frigate some mistakenly thought it was.

Even the story of the Constellation has been changed. The ship's glory days were once said to have included forays against pirates, battles against the British in 1812 and opening of the China trade in the 1840s. The newer version highlights the Constellation's role in breaking up the African slave traffic in the early 1860s and transporting food to famine-stricken Ireland in 1880.

To better serve Constellation visitors, the Living Classrooms Foundation is planning to demolish the Pratt Street pier's information center, a hulking 9-year-old structure that has been much criticized for obstructing the view. The organization wants to replace it with a sleeker, two-story building.

This is both good and not so good. The existing information center is a monstrosity. Unfortunately, the proposed replacement also would be unnecessarily overwhelming -- despite a somewhat different location and its see-through design. It could also make docking difficult along the east side of the Constellation pier, one of the few large berths available for visiting ships.

By and large, visitors do not come to see information centers, which often act mainly as glorified revenue-generating gift shops. One reason for the size of the Living Classrooms Foundation's proposed structure is the city's failure to construct a long-planned visitors center at Conway Street, just south of Harborplace's Light Street pavilion.

If the city's fund-raising is successful -- and that's a big if -- the $5 million visitors' center could finally break ground in the fall. The 14,000-square-foot building would house a 100-seat theater, major exhibits, travel counselors and desks for tickets and restaurant and hotel reservations.

Since 1969 -- long before the Inner Harbor became a tourist hub -- the Constellation has been a symbol of Baltimore's revitalization. Even the two Harborplace pavilions were designed so that the ship's elaborate rigging would be visible.

We welcome the old ship back. Nothing should be done to obstruct it, including building another obtrusive information center.

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