A center to sing about

Building: Morgan State's new $40 million arts center will house the school's theater, visual arts and music departments, and likely be a draw for the community, officials say.

October 15, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Nathan Carter, director of the world-renowned Morgan State University Choir, sweeps through the university's new $40 million arts center like a king showing off a conquered castle, proudly pointing out every nook and cranny of what might become the premier performing space in the city.

Carter would likely dismiss the royal comparison. Although he is considered by many to be the inspiration behind the center, he's quick to share credit for its construction.

But he won't quibble with equating the imposing building on Argonne Drive with a castle. When it comes to performance halls in the Baltimore area, he says, the Carl G. Murphy Fine Arts Center has no peer.

"This is the latest. We have the best of all worlds. We've got it all here," says Carter, as he stands on the stage of the center's 2,036-seat main auditorium. It combines the two-tiered balconies of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall with the vast stage of Broadway theaters, making it the ideal venue for every kind of event.

"This [building] will knock anyone out," Carter adds. "What I say to people is, `When you come into this building, get ready to say, `Ahhh.'"

The building, which will officially open with a concert Dec. 1 by diva Jessye Norman, has been under construction for 2 1/2 years and in the planning stages for a decade.

It will house all divisions of Morgan's fine arts department - theater, visual arts, music. But it is the choir that galvanized state backing for the project, and which will benefit most from the building, university officials say.

Although it performed at the White House, Lincoln Center and elsewhere around the world, the choir always returned to the old Murphy Arts Center on Hillen Road, a much smaller building without dressing rooms, reliable air conditioning or decent bathrooms, he says.

"We needed a home that was commensurate with what we were doing. What we were presenting to the world was so much more than our home base," he says. "We were performing in Germany, but we hardly had a home to practice in."

No longer. The choir's new high-ceilinged practice room is so well-appointed, it might pose a problem: The room's walls are ringed with marble, which causes some unwelcome echoes - acoustics that will be improved with some curtains and rugs.

Similar deluxe touches are found in every part of the 150,000-square-foot building - which, like the old center, is named for the late publisher of the Afro-American newspaper.

The gallery, which will give Morgan's art collection a home where it's not at risk of water damage, is awaiting the arrival of privately donated $40,000 carved wooden doors from Nigeria.

The 300-seat theater is linked to a large workshop for set construction, something the old center lacks. The band room is built on stilts and separated from the rest of the building by a hallway to keep the blare from bothering others. ("They can be as loud as they want to," says Carter. "We've lived next to them long enough. We're friends, but we've had our battles.")

The dressing rooms behind the auditorium are elegant enough to please the most finicky visiting star, and large enough to accommodate a chorus line. The unusually deep orchestra pit can be covered by an extension of the stage operated by a hydraulic lift.

The center's size and details will allow it to serve Morgan and Baltimore as a whole, campus officials say. The university has used a $1.5 million gift from James H. Gilliam Jr., a 1967 graduate for whom the new auditorium is named, to start what it hopes will become a $10 million fund to attract leading performers.

"This will enable us to extend programs beyond Morgan students. We'll be able to reach the public school system," says Gabriel Tenabe, Morgan's director of museums. "This will be a place to come see a play and an art show, without paying for two."

But the center's greatest impact will be on Morgan itself, says Carter, now in his 31st year with the choir.

The 6,300-student university, which has about 500 fine arts majors, will become a bigger draw for young standouts, Carter says. The center might also help Morgan evolve from a historically black college to a more diverse campus, he says.

The morale boost generated by the center isn't being felt just by the university's arts community, judging from the reaction of other students who have visited the building in the past few weeks, Carter adds.

"It gives pride to all our disciplines, and pride breeds success," he says. "The students have a different attitude when they walk in here. There's a certain dignity that it encourages."

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