A new star for the Constellation

URBAN LANDSCAPE

Replacement of the disastrous information center on Pier One is an idea whose time has come.

July 18, 1999|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Doctors bury their mistakes.

Architects grow ivy on theirs.

That sarcastic assessment, attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright, is one of the first jokes students hear in architecture school, and it may represent one of the reasons that the American landscape looks as ugly as it does.

All of which makes it a pleasant surprise to see so much thought and creativity going into correcting one of the biggest architectural blunders in Inner Harbor history: the peanut butter-colored information center on Pier One.

Thrown up in 1990 at a cost of $875,000, the two-story building was an aesthetic and economic disaster from the start. Intended to promote the U.S.S. Constellation, it ended up blocking views of it instead.

Now that the Constellation has returned to the Inner Harbor after a $9 million restoration, its new stewards, the directors of the Living Classrooms Foundation, want to replace the old center with a structure that will be less of an obtrusion on the 1854 sloop of war and less of a blight on the Inner Harbor.

Beyond that, they want to turn Pier One into a gateway for the National Historic Seaport, a newly formed network of 16 waterfront attractions in Baltimore that have joined together for marketing, promotion and ticket sales.

The foundation's directors believe that Pier One is the ideal spot for a new sort of interactive museum that can help tell the story of Baltimore's Inner Harbor and guide visitors to the growing array of maritime attractions along the water's edge.

It's an ambitious agenda and makes a tricky assignment for any architect. Instead of shrinking the building, the planners want to increase its size slightly. But if it's done right -- and preliminary plans appear to be headed in a positive direction -- this wharfside project could be nearly as significant for the Inner Harbor as the restoration of the Constellation itself.

The heart of the proposed maritime center is a two-story building on Pier One that would contain 5,000 to 6,000 square feet of space, including a ticket office, souvenir shop, orientation center, cafe, staff offices, artifact display area, and passageway to the deck of the Constellation.

On paper, that's not unlike the current 4,600-square-foot building. However, there are three key differences that promise to make the new building better: a new sponsoring organization, a broader set of objectives for the building's use, and a more sensitive design approach.

Its new sponsor, the Living Classrooms Foundation, is a nonprofit organization that effectively merged with the Constellation Foundation in May and is now responsible for maintaining and conducting tours of the Constellation.

Extending stewardship

Now operating from a campus on Center Dock at 802 S. Caroline St., the foundation was established in 1985 to provide hands-on education and employment training for young people. In recent years, it has expanded to take over operation of the harbor's paddle boat concession and many of the vessels on display around the Inner Harbor, including the lightship Chesapeake and the World War II submarine Torsk.

It launched the National Historic Seaport as a way to promote attractions that have much in common but never had any joint ticketing system or marketing campaign. Participants range from the Seven Foot Knoll lighthouse on Pier 5 to such established attractions as Fort McHenry and the Baltimore Museum of Industry. With the Constellation added to the mix, the 16 attractions are expected to draw more than 1.5 million visitors a year.

The foundation has been looking for one central location where visitors could learn all about the waterfront -- a sort of ground zero for the Inner Harbor experience. As they made plans to take control of the Constellation, the foundation's directors realized that the best location would be Pier One, just south of Harborplace's Pratt Street pavilion and less than a block from the Inner Harbor amphitheater.

From this location, directors realized, they had an opportunity not only to promote the Constellation but also to convey the larger message about Baltimore's maritime heritage and the redevelopment of the harbor. Pier One is almost exactly at the halfway point of a seven-mile promenade that stretches from Canton to South Baltimore, a promenade that the Living Classrooms Foundation is in charge of completing.

But how could the foundation fit this content-enriched program onto Pier One, without overloading it as before?

To plan its new facility, the organization turned to two lead designers: Mario L. Schack, the German-born, Harvard-trained architect of the existing Constellation building, and the local firm of Cho, Wilks & Benn, a company that has worked on many successful waterfront projects. Also participating in the design discussions is Lawrence Whitman, associate director of design with the Rouse Co., the builder of Harborplace.

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