Morgan showpiece draws attention

The Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center, with four performing spaces and a museum, could vastly enrich the arts in Baltimore.


November 25, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Many Marylanders know the cast by heart:

The Meyerhoff is the home of Baltimore's symphony. Center Stage is a regional theater. The Mechanic presents Broadway-style shows, and the Lyric is for opera and touring productions.

The Gilliam isn't yet such a household name, but it has the potential to be.

"The Gilliam" is short for the James H. and Louise Hayley Gilliam Concert Hall. With 2,000 seats, it's the largest of several performing spaces inside the $40 million Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center that opens next month on the Morgan State University campus in northeast Baltimore.

University President Earl Richardson will lead a dedication ceremony for the new center at 5 p.m. Dec. 1. After the dedication will be a concert by world-renowned soprano Jessye Norman.

This and other events are expected to draw patrons from around the region -- including many who haven't been to the Morgan campus in years, if ever.

What they will find is a sophisticated center that can be not only a new southern anchor for Morgan's campus but also a vibrant arts magnet for central Maryland. With four performing spaces and a museum under one roof, it has the potential to enhance Baltimore in the same way that the recently opened $130 million Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park has enriched the cultural life of metropolitan Washington.

"[The Murphy Center] will bring people of all races together where they can be introduced, or re-introduced, to Morgan and to this important part of the city," Richardson said last year.

And Morgan arts students finally have a home worthy of their talents, said Nathan Carter, director of the internationally acclaimed choir.

"When we travel around the world, people think we come from this great facility," Carter said. "Now, our home is catching up with our product. ... We think what we have is as good as anywhere in the country."

For music, theater, art, more

Morgan State is Maryland's most prominent historically black university, with independent doctorate-granting authority. It has more than 6,000 students, of which several hundred are arts majors.

Named for a former publisher of the Afro-American newspaper, the 140,000-square-foot Murphy Center, at 2201 Argonne Drive, was built to house the university's music, theater and art departments, while providing space for community activities and events.

It replaces a 1959 building on Hillen Road, also called the Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center, that is plagued with physical problems and considered functionally obsolete. It will be razed to make way for a new campus library.

The Murphy Center is the last major building project launched during William Donald Schaefer's eight-year tenure as governor.

To design the center, Morgan hired Allied Architects Inc. Allied is a permanent joint venture between Gaudreau Inc. and BWJ Inc., both of Baltimore. BWJ subsequently went out of business, leaving Gaudreau in charge. Gaudreau's predecessor, Gaudreau and Gaudreau, designed the original Murphy Center. Peter George Associates Inc. of Millbrook, N.Y., was the theater design and acoustical consultant for the new building.

The exterior is an assemblage of geometrical forms that reflect the spaces inside, including the museum on the west side of the entry court with a sweeping glass wall and the large Gilliam Hall with flanking stair towers on the east side. The designers alternated curves with flat surfaces to add visual interest and break down the center's apparent scale. Exterior materials, mostly buff-colored brick and red brick, are compatible with the palette of other buildings on Morgan's campus.

Inside, a gently curving lobby leads directly to the three largest spaces: the Gilliam Concert Hall, the 270-seat Turpin-Lamb Theater and the James E. Lewis Museum of Art. Other spaces can be reached either from this lobby or other levels of the building. The center is fully accessible to the disabled and has 500 off-street parking spaces.

The performing spaces are separated acoustically so the center can schedule simultaneous events, and each has its own architectural character.

The Gilliam Concert Hall is a bright, spare space, with an orchestra level and two balcony levels. Interior surfaces include molded drywall and fluted wood panels. The upholstered seats have generous knee and hip room, and sight lines are unobstructed. For balcony railings, the designers cleverly used glass with minimal reflectivity instead of metal rails that might have blocked views.

Great flexibility

Among the Gilliam's most impressive traits are its stage and stage house, which will boast many of the features on opening day that the Lyric doesn't have after 100 years. The stage is 115 feet wide and 40 feet deep. The roof is seven stories above the stage, providing plenty of room to fly scenery.

Because the hall will be used by both Morgan students and professional groups, it had to be flexible enough to accommodate everything from touring Broadway shows to operas and symphony concerts.

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