City realizing value of county estate

ARCHITECTURE

Cloisters in demand as party rental facility

Architecture Column

April 22, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

When directors of Baltimore's Office of Promotion & The Arts sent out invitations to a recent wine-tasting party and silent auction at The Cloisters estate in Baltimore County -- a benefit for the city's annual Artscape festival -- they got an angry response from one invitee.

How dare a city agency hold an event in Baltimore County?

Couldn't the fund-raisers find any suitable locations on city property, the anonymous correspondent demanded to know

What the writer apparently didn't realize is that The Cloisters is city property -- a bequest to Baltimore from original owners Sumner and Dudrea Parker. Located at 10440 Falls Road in Brooklandville and designed to resemble a castle, it served as home to the region's children's museum for 17 years before Port Discovery opened in 1998.

Although city officials briefly considered selling the 60-acre estate after the Cloisters Children's Museum closed in 1994, they wisely held onto it.

Now it has a new life as a rental facility for weddings, galas, corporate holiday parties, retreats and receptions of all kinds, even a setting for filmmakers.

And by all accounts, it's busier than ever. During Mayor Martin O'Malley's tenure, this historic treasure has become something of a gold mine for the city.

"It's used for more than 200 events a year," said Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Office of Promotion and the Arts. "It's profitable. It pays for itself."

Booked well into 2004, it's increasingly being reserved on weekdays as well as weekends, added Virginia Remsberg, on-site coordinator for The Cloisters from 1995 until this year and now facilities director for the promotions office.

"If you wanted to get a Saturday evening in the fall of 2003, or a Sunday in 2003, I can't help you," Remsberg said. "It's a very sought-after facility."

The heavy bookings represent a welcome turn of events for The Cloisters, which didn't always operate in the black -- and wasn't originally meant to become a city property.

The Byzantine-Gothic-Renaissance-Tudor-style mansion was designed by Sumner Parker, an architect and engineer who served for nearly four decades as president of the steel firm Armstrong and Parker. After he married the former Dudrea Wagner in 1905, he and his wife traveled extensively, collecting antiques, paintings and other works of art from around the world.

The Parkers built The Cloisters from 1930 to 1933 to display much of their collection. It has more than 30 rooms and takes its name from the covered or cloistered walkway that encloses a rear garden.

The mock castle design was inspired by the medieval French and English architecture the Parkers had seen on their travels. Exterior walls are made of Butler stone. The interior features beautifully carved woodwork and ornamental Ironwork made by Armstrong and Parker.

The Parkers maintained a city residence at 913 St. Paul St. and filled it with art and artifacts as well. They frequently opened both homes as museums for the public. Sumner Parker died in 1945. After Dudrea Parker died in 1972, the city gained control of the estate and leased it for use as a children's museum starting in 1977.

When the museum closed in 1994 to prepare for its move to Market Place, then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said the city would identify a new user who could take advantage of the building's grandeur and semirural location, while honoring the Parkers' request that it remain available "for public use." He asked Clair Segal, former director of the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture, to explore various options and recommend what to do.

Remsberg credits Segal with making the decisions that led to the city's current plan for operating The Cloisters as a private rental facility, with profits going back to the upkeep of the building and grounds.

"She recognized that there was potential in the facility that couldn't be realized when the children's museum was here," Remsberg said.

The Cloisters is one of six attractions managed by Baltimore's Office of Promotion and the Arts, which was created from the recent merger of the Office of Promotion and the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture and will become a quasi-public agency on July 1.

Others are the Baltimore Farmers' Market, Inner Harbor Ice Rink, Pier Six Concert Pavilion, School 33 Art Center and Top of the World Observation Deck.

Gilmore and Remsberg noted that Dudrea Parker originally wanted to leave the property to the state of Maryland to ensure continued public access, but the state wouldn't accept the gift. Baltimore was a fallback.

The Parkers' vast art collection also went to the city, which subsequently sold much of it in a series of auctions. The sales did not include works of art that were part of the house, including a stained-glass window in the chapel, two medieval doors from the 15th and 16th centuries, and bookcases the Parkers had built from chestnut trees on their property.

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