Guardian of the past looks to its future

Historical Society's new zinc- and glass-clad structures will unify its eclectic campus.

Architecture : Review

May 06, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

The Maryland Historical Society's Mount Vernon campus is filled with buildings that are emblematic of the periods in which they were built -- from the stately Pratt House of the 1840s to the streamlined former Greyhound bus station of the 1940s -- and its next major addition promises to be no different.

Leaders plan to break ground by Dec. 1 on a three-story, $10 million gallery building and entrance that will reflect contemporary attitudes about spacemaking, expressive use of materials and openness in museum design.

One of the first structures in the region to feature zinc on the exterior, the addition will unify and clarify a fragmented campus, while defining a new main entrance off Park Avenue. The chief gesture to the past will be a sculpture court containing architectural artifacts.

"The site is a collection of period pieces, you might say," observed Steve Ziger of Ziger Snead Inc., the architect. "Most of them are true to their time. We felt it was important for us to be true to our time, to show that history is a continuum."

Founded in 1844, the private, nonprofit society includes a museum, library, press and educational division. It boasts one of the nation's largest collections of Americana, with emphasis on Maryland art and artifacts. The gallery building and entranceway are part of a $20 million expansion campaign that was launched in 1997 (and has since grown into a $29.5 million campaign). Earlier phases involved renovation of older buildings owned or acquired by the society, which now controls the entire city block bounded by Howard, Centre and Monument streets and Park Avenue, plus other properties. This will be the first all-new structure to rise on the campus since the France-Merrick Wing opened in 1982.

According to director Dennis Fiori, the society gained 40,000 square feet of space through renovation of the former Home Mutual building at 104 W. Centre St. and the former Greyhound terminal at 601 N. Howard St. That work -- representing an $8 million investment -- saved the society money because it was completed for an average of $40 per square foot, as opposed to costs of $250 per square foot for new construction. "It makes good economic sense to reuse buildings from the neighborhood," Fiori says. "Preservation is a bargain."

New exhibit space

It also gave architects of the new building a chance to focus on providing first-rate exhibit space for furniture, paintings and other objects in the society's collection.

They've responded by putting a three-story gallery wing next to the old Greyhound bus garage at Park Avenue and Centre Street, a building that has been converted to a column-free exhibit space called the Heritage Wing.

The first floor of the new building has been designed so its galleries can be combined with those of the Heritage Wing or kept separate from them. It will contain an introductory exhibit on Maryland history. The upper two floors will contain distinct galleries, with decorative arts, furniture and textiles displayed on the second level and paintings and other fine arts on the third.

The galleries will have ceilings ranging in height from 13 feet on the first and second floors to 20 feet on the third -- much higher than the 9 1/2 -foot ceilings in its current galleries. The main galleries on each floor will be 36 feet wide and 110 feet long -- comparable to the dimensions of the Walters Art Museum's Baroque Gallery.

Equally important, the gallery building will bring new spatial clarity to the growing history campus. The current layout can be confusing to visitors because it intersperses the public galleries and library with areas closed to the public. Once the addition is complete, all of the exhibit space will be consolidated in one area, making it easier for visitors to become oriented.

The Heritage Wing and the three-story gallery building together will be known as the Center for Maryland Life. This quadrant of the society's property will be linked to its Monument Street buildings by a connector parallel to Park Avenue but set back in the middle of the block. The open space from the curb to the front doors will be an arrival courtyard and outdoor exhibit area. School groups will use the existing Monument Street entrance, and staffers and visitors arriving by car wlll enter on the west side of the new connector.

Ziger Snead clad the new entrance in clear glass. Until now, the society's buildings have been relatively inward-looking, so it's difficult to tell from the street what's happening inside. The glass entry and forecourt will help draw the public in by making the entrance as transparent and inviting as possible.

For the gallery wing, largely windowless, the architects have proposed a surface of zinc panels, with glass openings where needed to let natural light into galleries or circulation spaces. The largest openings will be clerestory windows on the north side of the building.

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