The historic gatehouse at the entrance to Sheppard Pratt has long been the psychiatric hospital's public face to the world - for better and for worse.
The stone cottage on North Charles Street in Towson is so well-known that it was part of the hospital's logo for a time. And, because of its fairy-tale appearance, the image of the gatehouse - whose grounds recently underwent a $400,000 makeover - is woven into the childhood memories of countless Baltimoreans, as Dr. Steven S. Sharfstein soon discovered when he began to run the institution in 1986.
He just as quickly learned this nostalgia had a dark side.
"People would always talk about the gatehouse, driving by with their parents and their parents saying: `Stop that or you're going to end up there,'" recalled Sharfstein, the hospital's chief executive officer and medical director. "It represented ... where the crazy people went."
But the gatehouse to what is now the Sheppard Pratt Health System evolved into a different kind of threat - to the hundreds of cars that squeezed every day through its narrow arch, designed for horse-drawn buggies. And it became a threat to itself, because of the damage done to the structure whenever a truck or bus driver forgot to check the height restrictions.
"Many's the day," said Bonnie B. Katz, vice president of business development, "that you'd arrive to find security trying to move a truck that was wedged in the arch."
The gatehouse, like the hospital's original "A" and "B" buildings, is a national historic landmark. But how could the Sheppard Pratt Health System ensure the gatehouse's protection when it often seemed one accident away from suffering irreparable damage?
"Ever since I've been here, I've said there's got to be a safer way," said Sharfstein, who instructed family members to avoid the Charles Street entrance.
So when it was time to design a new entrance that would bypass the gatehouse, Sharfstein, working with the hospital's project liaison, Lindsay Thompson, and architectural firm RTKL Associates, saw the project as an overdue opportunity. They could preserve the gatehouse, which serves as a residence for a painter on the hospital staff, while ending the almost monthly traffic accidents at the entrance. The original road would become a scenic walking path, while a "dogleg" would give motorists more lanes and better sight lines. They could have lighting at the entrance for the first time.
Last month, the project was completed. The new, wider road that sweeps around the gatehouse leads to a Sheppard Pratt where other changes are under way.
Sharfstein has moved out of the president's aging house and into Baltimore's Guilford neighborhood. The vacated house will be razed, now that construction has started on dormitories for Towson University, which are expected to open in August 2002. The Casino Building, which the hospital's patients have not used for years, will be converted into a recreation facility for the students.
"Emotionally, it was difficult. Intellectually, it was the right thing to do," Sharfstein said of the decision to close the president's house, which always seemed to be in need of repairs. "It was the classic brain-heart problem."
The dormitories will be leased to the university and will provide Sheppard Pratt with financial support, an issue that remains uppermost in the staff's minds in the wake of reforms affecting psychiatric hospitals. This month, the hospital is expected to complete the sale of 14 acres to Greater Baltimore Medical Center, which plans to use it for a medical pavilion.
"They're trying to be good stewards of the best of what's there," said architect Walter Schamu, who visits the campus almost weekly as a consultant on the various projects.
But Sheppard Pratt has always been a work in progress, its physical landscape changing as its psychiatric mission did. When the gatehouse opened in 1861, it was essentially a sentry to nothing: It was 1891 before the hospital admitted its first patient. The hospital's construction took so long that "I'll get to it when Sheppard's finished" became a way of saying something was never going to happen.