Kramer House sale shows the home behind the art

Architecture: Maryland Institute's Fred Lazarus says the sale is a way to put the artist's works in the hands of people while raising money.

Architecture

June 04, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

From 1966 until shortly before his death in 1999, Maryland artist Reuben Kramer created hundreds of sculptures and drawings from a one-story studio and residence in Baltimore's Bolton Hill neighborhood - including portraits of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and former Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

That studio and residence will be open to the public Saturday for the first time since Kramer's death as part of an unusual sale of the artist's work sponsored by the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

Kramer House is the name of the brick building at 121 Mosher St. where Kramer lived and worked with his wife, the painter Perna Krick, who died in 1991.

In his will, Kramer donated the building to the college, which has converted it to a residence for visiting artists. A 1932 institute graduate who came to be known as the dean of figurative sculptors in this region, Kramer also donated many of his pen and ink drawings and small sculptures dating from the 1930s to the 1990s, along with some money to maintain the building, which is several blocks from the heart of campus.

The college is selling selected works from the artist's estate to build up the endowment it created to operate and maintain Kramer House, and has converted the building itself to a temporary gallery of Kramer's work for the sale.

The art includes small bronze figures, abstract sculptures and whimsical drawings of people, animals and other subjects. Prices range from $75 for an unframed etching to $1,000 or more for a bronze figure.

Many alumni and friends of the college have expressed an interest in acquiring Kramer's work, and this is a chance for them to do so while helping maintain Kramer's longtime studio, according to president Fred Lazarus.

"Part of the goal is to raise money," he said. "But the real goal is to let people who love his work have a chance to acquire it. Rather than have it in storage somewhere, we'd like to have it in people's homes."

The public sale, which will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, also affords a rare chance to visit the former studio of one of Maryland's most celebrated artists. Designed by the late Richard W. Ayers of Ayers/Saint, (now Ayers Saint Gross), it also was one of the first modern buildings in the Bolton Hill historic district.

The house was built after Kramer's previous residence, a converted stable, was torn down to make way for the state office complex at Preston and Eutaw streets. Because Ayers studied at the American Academy in Rome at the same time as Kramer, the sculptor was comfortable working with him and was very involved in the design, Lazarus said.

"It was exactly the way Reuben wanted it," Lazarus said. "The way Reuben wanted the light to come in. The way Reuben wanted the back wall to rise. It was all very carefully worked out. ... Richard Ayers designed the house for sculpture."

Eighty percent of the house is taken up by an octagonal studio with a vaulted ceiling rising 25 feet above the floor - sufficient height for tall statues. The floor was reinforced to carry the weight of the sculptures. Eight panes of hammered glass form a large skylight, which was slanted to get the best north light possible.

A trolley hoist dangled from above to move heavy works, and a large white partition beneath the ceiling reflects light downward. Exposed wood in the ceiling adds warmth to the space.

The kitchen and bedroom, located on the perimeter of the house, are relatively modest. Also on the side was a small painting studio for Perna Krick. There was no formal dining or living room.

"I wouldn't know what to do with them," Kramer said in a 1981 interview. "We eat in the kitchen and if we have a few guests over, we will eat in the studio." The studio also doubled as a place for Kramer to relax or hold his weekly art group meetings.

Ayers originally came up with five designs for the house, Kramer added in the interview. "One was the Cadillac version - very expensive. We came down to the Chevrolet design."

A well-known barterer, Kramer paid for all the architectural work with art created by himself and his wife, recalled Richard A. Ayers, the son of Richard W. Ayers and now a partner in Ayers Saint Gross. "My mom still has three or four Perna Kricks hanging on the wall," he said, plus three or four of Kramer's bronze statuettes and reclining nudes.

Kramer was exceptionally well organized, said Tracy Lambros, a 2001 graduate of the institute's Mount Royal School of Art, who has been cataloging the artwork for the sale. "The job of inventorying his work has been very easy because he dated everything, he signed everything, and he titled most of his work," she said. "He kept a lot of documentation."

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