Flag House to be star-spangled

Plans: One exterior wall will contain a U.S. flag embedded in glass.


October 29, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, American flags have adorned the urban landscape as never before, hanging from buildings of all shapes and sizes.

But at one local construction project that is about to take shape, a flag won't just hang on a building. It will be the building.

A $3 million addition to the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House and War of 1812 Museum has been designed to feature a 30-by-42-foot image of the American flag embedded in glass on the most prominent exterior wall.

According to a rendering created by the project architect, RCG Inc. of Baltimore, the flag will be a 15-star, full-size replica of the one that flew over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became the national anthem.

"Remember going to the Smithsonian as a kid, and the first thing you'd see was that giant flag and what an impression it made?" said architect Jonathan Fishman of RCG. "Instead of making a building that would be the enclosure for a flag, we decided the flag should be the building."

Fishman said the idea of the American flag as a permanent part of the building was in the works long before hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last month. He said the image grew out of the nature of the 12,600-square-foot project, which will contain exhibit space, offices, a computer resource room, auditorium and gift shop within the walls of the historic Flag House property at 844 E. Pratt St.

Those spaces are being constructed to supplement the museum that marks the birthplace of the Star-Spangled Banner, created by seamstress Mary Pickersgill.

The idea of featuring Pickersgill's flag as part of the addition was a goal of Jean Hofmeister, the former city harbormaster who died in 1986 and left $1 million for the project in his will. The amount has since grown to more than $2 million, enough to cover the bulk of construction. The building will be named the Jean and Lillian Hofmeister Building.

Pickersgill's flag is at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, where it is being restored. Fishman said he considered hanging a full-size cloth replica or fabric scrim as part of the addition. But he was afraid that visitors would mistake any sort of fabric facsimile for the genuine article, and that an opaque flag would block views to and from the Flag House grounds.

That prompted him to explore the idea of making a glass "flag wall" instead.

The wall will be a structural glazing system, similar to one at Baltimore's Convention Center, in which glass is put in place without mullions. Instead of being clear, however, the glass will be colored with a ceramic "frit" material designed to depict the 15-star flag with thin red, white and blue stripes. The stripes will be spaced far enough apart that people will be able to see in and out of the glass wall, but close enough that the flag image will be discernible from a distance. The flag wall will be set against a granite frame.

"You'll be able to see the colors of the flag, but you'll also be able to see right through it," Fishman said. "We've tested it outside. It's very effective. And since it's made of glass, it's clearly a representation. No one could mistake it for the flag that flew over Fort McHenry."

Construction is scheduled to begin in January and be complete by June 14, 2003, Flag Day. The flag wall is one of several design touches that will underscore the significance of the Star-Spangled Banner and those who made it. Around the building, paving will be etched with musical notes and excerpts from Key's poem. Text from the national anthem also will silkscreened on walls.

In the garden, a fountain will be made in the shape of a giant spool of thread and a needle - a reference to the 350,000 stitches it took Pickersgill and her team to sew the flag. On the plaza in front of the flag wall will be a map of the United States, with each state made of stone from that state. The map is being relocated from another part of the property.

Michael Vergason is the landscape architect for the project. Henry Lewis Contractors is the builder.

Attendance at the Flag House and War of 1812 Museum has been strong since Sept. 11, with 908 visitors in September, and more so far this month. Sales at the gift shop also have been strong. In response, the Flag House is now opening from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the second Sunday of every month, in addition to its normal operating hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Assistant director Abbi Wicklein-Bayne said she attributes the increase in attendance to the surge of patriotism that has become evident around the country since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. "The Flag House is fun to visit, and people don't feel guilty about it," she said. "It's patriotic."

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