Spiffing up Baltimore's room with a view

Renovations: The Top of the World Observation deck will close this month to get a facelift.


March 05, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

After nearly 22 years of operation and 4 million visitors, one of Baltimore's best-known harbor attractions is taking a brief hiatus.

The Top of the World Observation Deck, which offers panoramic views of the city from the 27th floor of the World Trade Center, will close to the public beginning March 12 to receive $500,000 worth of renovations. It's scheduled to reopen by Memorial Day.

The work is part of a two-year, $1.5 million project that Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration is launching to increase attendance, and make the Top of the World one of the city's premiere attractions.

It's the first major overhaul for the observation deck, and it follows extensive renovations of other downtown attractions, including the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the Convention Center and Harborplace.

Along with the physical changes, the city plans to institute an aggressive marketing and sales campaign for the Top of the World, recruit new volunteers and add corporate partners.

"When the Top of the World was first constructed - before the aquarium, before Harborplace, before a lot of the Class A office buildings downtown - it was viewed as an economic development tool, a place to bring people to the water's edge and give them a 360-degree view of the downtown business district, and we want to go back to that," said Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion, which operates the Top of the World.

"When people visit the city and want to get oriented, we want them to think of the Top of the World as the place to do that."

The attraction opened on July 15, 1979, as Baltimore's equivalent of the popular lookout points atop New York City and Chicago skyscrapers. The city of Baltimore leases the space for $1 a year from the state of Maryland, which owns the pentagonal building at 401 E. Pratt St. It gets at least 125,000 paying visitors a year and another 30,000 children admitted free as part of school groups.

The observation level has featured photo plaques identifying many of the buildings that viewers could see from the 27th floor, as well as exhibits about the Port of Baltimore, well-known Baltimoreans and other subjects of interest to tourists and business travelers.

In recent years, however, some information displayed on the photo panels and elsewhere has become out of date, as new buildings rise around the harbor and older ones change owners and names.

Gilmore said the first phase of work will entail removing outdated exhibits and gutting the space to the bare walls, floor and ceiling. Contractors will paint the walls and ceiling, add a new light and sound system and install new carpeting and railings around the perimeter.

The promotion office has commissioned J. Middleton Evans to take photographs from the roof of the World Trade Center next month, and those images will be used in new photo plaques that will be mounted below the floor-to-ceiling windows. In addition, the promotion office is working with the Maryland Historical Society to locate photographs of Baltimore from around 1900 that can be mounted above the windows, to show how the city has evolved.

The scope of the project, whose architect is Design Collective of Baltimore, also involves making the observation level free of stairs and other physical barriers. The space already qualified as being accessible to people in wheelchairs, Gilmore said, but it had steps that could cause people to trip if they became absorbed in looking out the windows. Now it will be all one level.

The $500,000 for this work, expected to be done by Memorial Day, is coming from public and private sources. A second phase will get under way next winter, when new exhibits will be installed at an estimated cost of $1 million.

Gilmore said the content of the exhibits will be determined over the next year, but possible ideas include new displays on the Port of Baltimore and the Digital Harbor campaign - the effort to convince high tech firms to establish headquarters in Baltimore. There also will be a new gift shop.

The Office of Promotion will appoint an advisory board to oversee development of the exhibits and an educational curriculum for the renovated space. It also will identify corporate partners to promote the space and raise funds to help pay for the exhibits.

The primary goal, Gilmore said, is to make sure the Top of the World remains a must-see destination for visitors who want a quick but substantive overview of the city. The O'Malley administration also wants to keep the cost of admission similar to what it is today - $4 for adults, $3 for seniors and $2 for children.

Lecture series

Two local architecture groups, the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Baltimore Architecture Foundation, are launching their spring lecture series this week.

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