Historic house due for spring cleaning

Project: 1815 structure at Baltimore Museum of Art to get $87,000 facelift thanks to nonprofit group.


January 14, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

The historic Oakland Spring House at the Baltimore Museum of Art, a neo-classical landmark whose interior has been off limits to the public for more than 30 years, will be open soon to visitors again.

Museum directors plan to mount temporary exhibits inside the building after contractors complete an $87,000 conservation project designed to address deterioration of the 1815 structure and take it back to its original appearance.

Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation approved plans this month for the work, which is to begin in the spring and be completed by fall.

This will be the first extensive preservation effort involving the building in many years. Key features include replacing the roof to match the original cedar shingles; restoring plaster walls and woodwork; repairing the interior brick floor and painting the exterior in its original colors - yellow ochre stucco walls and cream-colored trim. The museum also plans to install a marker outlining the building's history.

Set on the west side of the museum's grounds, the spring house is "one of the gems of the American Wing," said James Abbott, curator of decorative arts. In fact, he said, it is the largest artifact in the museum's collection, with its own accessions number (BMA 1932.25.1).

"Our hope is to use it for limited exhibits of materials that aren't sensitive to climate changes" - from architectural artifacts to photography, he said. It also could be used as a backdrop for summer concerts and plays.

Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the U.S. Capitol and Baltimore's Basilica of the Assumption, the spring house is considered one of the purest surviving examples of neo-classical architecture in Maryland.

A spring house is a small, free-standing structure that uses spring water to keep crocks of milk and other dairy products cool. In effect, spring houses served as refrigerators before electricity was available. They were typically built near the main house of a large estate, along with an ice house.

This one stood on the grounds of a private estate called Oakland, owned by Robert Goodloe Harper. The estate occupied land off Falls Road that later became part of the Roland Park development. The building had troughs on three sides where spring water was channeled, and crocks of milk were set in those troughs.

The spring house was purchased by the city in 1931 and moved to the museum's grounds. The museum had recently opened its 1929 building on Art Museum Drive, and the spring house was seen as a logical companion to the 19th century art and period furnishings already in its collection.

Around the same time, other U.S. museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, were launching similar preservation initiatives. John Russell Pope, architect for the BMA's 1929 building, was instrumental in determining the site for the spring house and squelching proposals to increase its size.

Peter Pearre, principal of Trostel and Pearre of Baltimore, is the consulting architect for the restoration. Once work is complete, "it's really going to shine," he said. "There aren't many Latrobe buildings that have survived. ... We want to make sure that future generations get to enjoy it."

When it first was moved to the museum grounds, the spring house was used to display architectural artifacts, but electricity was never installed. In recent years, it has been closed entirely.

A comprehensive preservation effort is necessary now, Pearre said, because the wood shingle roof is "at the end of its life" and must be replaced. "If the museum didn't do something with the roof" this year, he said, "there would be serious damage."

In addition, Pearre said, wooden louvers installed to ventilate the interior have not operated for many years, causing wood to deteriorate. Along with the new roof, the louvers will be made operable to improve ventilation, he said.

The work will be completed at no expense to city taxpayers. The museum has obtained an $87,000 grant from the Richard C. von Hess Foundation of Columbia, Pa., a nonprofit organization with a history of funding worthy preservation efforts.

"This is a project that appealed to them greatly," Abbott said.

Harbor design finalists

The Baltimore Development Corp. has narrowed from 14 to five the number of design teams under consideration to prepare a revised master plan for Baltimore's Inner Harbor. The finalists, to be interviewed later this month, are groups headed by:

Cooper, Robertson and Partners of New York, with Cho Benn Holback + Associates of Baltimore and landscape architect Thomas Balsley;

The Washington office of Beyer Blinder Belle, with Rhodeside Harwell of Alexandria, Va., and Mahan Rykiel of Baltimore;

Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut and Kuhn of New York, with Cho Benn Holback; Mahan Rykiel and retailing specialist Williams Jackson Ewing, all of Baltimore;

EDAW Inc. of Alexandria and Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh, Pa., with Cho Benn Holback and Mahan Rykiel;

The Chicago office of SmithGroup/Johnson, Johnson and Roy, with Cho Benn Holback.

A selection is expected by early next month.

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