Front door to open at Hackerman

ARCHITECTURE

Walters Art Museum to unlock entrance

ArchitectureColumn

April 29, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Locked doors are the bane of the urban explorer, the scourge of the weekend wanderer.

Though they're unavoidable in a security-conscious age, they can also be the kiss of death for a cultural area by making it seem more "closed up" than it is.

One Baltimore institution is taking steps to reverse that impression -- for part of the week, at least -- by unlocking a doorway that has been closed to the public for most of the past decade.

Starting next month, the Walters Art Museum will open the front door to the Hackerman House, the 1850 mansion that is linked by a footbridge to the main museum and has housed its Asian Arts collection since 1991.

The mansion is one of the key landmarks of Mount Vernon Place, the 19th-century urban square that Henry James once called "Baltimore's parlour." But its front door, which faces the square, has been closed for security purposes. Visitors have had to gain access to Hackerman House by going in the museum's Centre Street entrance and walking through the back of the mansion first.

Starting Thursday, the Walters will open the front doors to the Hackerman House whenever admission to the museum is free. That's every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and on the first Thursday of each month from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The museum is taking this step as a welcoming gesture to people visiting the Mount Vernon Cultural District in general and as a way to draw more attention to its Asian Arts collection in particular.

Opening the front doors when admission is free will also help give visitors a better opportunity to study the relationship between the house's interior and exterior, without requiring the museum to build and staff a second ticket counter.

"This is the way the house was supposed to be experienced," said Walters director Gary Vikan, standing in the doorway last week. "Baltimore is a front-door city, and this is a good front-door house. ... I hope this will enable people to enjoy this house as it was meant to be seen."

In the "barbecue culture" of the 20th century, people have become accustomed to spending time in their back yards and going in and out of the backs of their houses, Vikan said. But Hackerman House was built in an era when people called on each other by going through the front porch, and it makes sense for the museum to acknowledge that, he said.

Besides, Mount Vernon Place is "the greatest 19th-century residential square in the United States," and opening the front door underscores the connection between the house and that public space, Vikan said.

The grandeur of the park and the grandeur of the house reflect similar attitudes about design, he said. They spring "from the same spirit."

The Walters is not the only institution that's making plans to open its doors on Mount Vernon Place. The Peabody Institute is moving its main entrance from Charles Street to Mount Vernon Place -- its original entrance -- as part of a $24 million renovation launched last year.

In addition, museums in Brooklyn and Cleveland, among others, have reopened or are considering plans to reopen original entrances that have long been closed to the public, sometimes because of steps that make them inaccessible to people in wheelchairs. The Baltimore Museum of Art opened its main entrance on Art Museum Drive for a recent exhibit.

New tour series

One beneficiary of Vikan's decision to open the Hackerman House's front door is the Mount Vernon Cultural District, a nonprofit group that promotes the area and its cultural institutions.

Its executive director, Lisa Keir, is launching a new series of walking tours of Mount Vernon this spring and has asked several property owners if tour leaders could take groups into buildings through their entrances on Mount Vernon Place.

"The Hackerman House is one of the premier architectural gems of Mount Vernon Place, and for people to be able to step inside and look at it from an architectural perspective is a wonderful opportunity," she said. "To see that wonderful entry hall and the magnificent stairway with its Tiffany glass skylight gives you a real sense of how the building works, as opposed to just looking at the exterior."

Vikan said he's happy to oblige because it enables people to see more of the square and appreciate it as an "indoor-outdoor experience," not just a group of buildings that can be seen only from the outside.

Besides Hackerman House, Keir said, she would like tour leaders to be able to take people inside the former Garrett-Jacobs Mansion, the former Marburg Mansion, the Peabody Library and Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, among others.

The walking tour series will be launched on Thursday at 4 p.m. at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St. A second walking tour will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday, starting at the "seated lion" statue. The cost is $10 per person. More information is available from the Mount Vernon Cultural District at 410-605-0462, or online at www.mvcd.org.

Enduring landmarks

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