A new visitor center will open today in Fells Point, designed primarily to capitalize on the many people who travel to the neighborhood by water, encouraging them to explore and spend money at local businesses.
The $400,000 center at 808 S. Ann St. has been constructed in and around the partial shell of a house that dates from 1775 and had its second story removed in the 1930s. Designed by Swanston & Associates, the center is bright with sunlight from a raised triangular glass skylight and will serve as an orientation gallery and briefing area.
"We had a specific goal in mind," said Romaine Somerville, director of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point. "We hope it will draw the many people who come by water into the community to learn about the architectural and cultural heritage of Fells Point and to draw them into proximity with the businesses here."
Visitors sometimes get off the water taxis, walk around for a while and then get back on without ever stepping foot in the buildings that are left over from Fells Point's days as a working waterfront.
The center one day will feature exhibits and a video presentation and have a receiving area for bus groups, community meeting rooms and services to guide visitors to attractions in the Fells Point area. The Preservation Society currently gives tours to more than 10,000 schoolchildren annually.
Once inside the visitor center, people will receive explanations of the history and architectural significance of the area. They will be given instructions on how to identify the age of buildings in the neighborhood. Visitors may also learn about the experiences of immigrants who were ferried to Fells Point after arriving at Locust Point and about the large, free African-American community that thrived in the area before the Civil War.
Information about area restaurants, shops, taverns and walking tours and other services also will be provided.
A temporary center, at 1732 Thames, has received 1,200 visitors a week since opening Aug. 1. Somerville predicts that the new center will attract between 35,000 and 40,000 visitors a year.
The new visitor center is part of a $2.2 million Maryland Maritime Center made up of the Robert Long House Museum and Garden at 812 S. Ann St., a restored merchant's house at 1732 Thames St. that was donated to the Preservation Society by longtime member Lucretia Fisher and a maritime museum at 1724-1726 Thames St. that will feature artifacts from the Maryland Historical Society's Radcliffe Maritime Museum.
Part of the restored merchant's house, which dates from about 1790, will be furnished as a period house and be open for tours. Also at the site will be a museum shop and bookstore and a boardroom for the society's meetings.
The maritime museum is slated to open by the end of next year and is expected to receive about 20,000 visitors a year.
Carroll Armstrong, president and chief executive officer of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, considers the new center a welcome addition to the city's offerings for tourists.
"It's not easy to understand Fells Point, and adding a visitor center would create a much better experience for visitors," he said. "They're going to, hopefully, add information from all aspects of Fells Point and enhance the daytime potential there. It's already known for its night life."
Armstrong also hopes that the new facility will operate cooperatively with the existing Inner Harbor visitor center to provide a continuity in service and information.
"We set them up and get them primed and get them over there," Armstrong said. "Then they deliver the experience."
If this launch goes well, a strong case will be made for a Mount Vernon center, which already is under consideration, Armstrong said.
James C. Hunt, executive director of the Mount Vernon Cultural District Inc., said he would like to see a permanent visitor center in the Mount Vernon neighborhood within four years and a temporary kiosk in place soon. "A visitor center gives you the best opportunity to orient people and make them aware of what else there is in our neighborhood," Hunt said. "That's our biggest obstacle."
Proposed locations for a $300,000 to $500,000 visitor center are the Washington Monument, the atrium of the renovated Peabody Institute or in an existing building after renovation, Hunt said. He predicts that such a center could receive about 50,000 visitors a year. Together, the nine buildings in the district receive 1.5 million visitors a year, he said.