He aims to please


Stern will limit design losses at Sheppard Pratt

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

Can New York architect Robert Stern help the Sheppard Pratt Health System expand for the future without destroying its priceless buildings from the past?

That's what local preservationists are wondering as they wait for Sheppard Pratt, the state's leading provider of psychiatric services, to release preliminary plans for an $80-million to $90-million expansion that Stern and others have been commissioned to design for its 80-acre campus off Charles Street near Towson.

The commission is sensitive because Sheppard Pratt is one of the last institutions in the country that retains its configuration from the days when it was an asylum -- a retreat where patients stayed for 80 days or more to receive psychiatric treatment. The hospital was a pioneer in behavioral health care design, and the Gothic-style buildings by Calvert Vaux and others are among the most architecturally significant in Baltimore County.

The trustees of Sheppard Pratt want to build a replacement for its inpatient hospital, currently licensed for 322 beds, and renovate substantial portions of its existing structures for other uses. Leaders say the physical plant needs to change because the existing buildings, some of which date back to 1891, are functionally obsolete for today's psychiatric practices. They want to replace the inpatient hospital with a 165,000-square- foot facility that is more efficient to operate, enhances patient privacy and is more consistent with the current mode of practice in psychiatry.

Local preservationists say the hospital's once-bucolic nature has already been compromised by encroaching development, and they're concerned that Sheppard Pratt's expansion could destroy the setting even more. They fear that some of Sheppard Pratt's 14 buildings may be taken down to make way for the expansion and have sought to get much of the campus added to the county's landmark list, so expansion plans would have to be reviewed by the county's preservation commission.

Preliminary designs for the expansion won't be unveiled for several weeks, but Stern provided a preview of sorts during a slide presentation last week to hospital trustees and donors. Some of the ideas he expressed may give preservationists reason for hope that he and others on the design team can find a way to help Sheppard Pratt grow without destroying its historic resources.

"As we look at the future of Sheppard Pratt and think about what we're going to add, a few bits and pieces are going to be removed, but not what everyone thinks," Stern said. "This is a sacred landscape here. We are trying to be respectful of it for future generations."

A leader of the postmodern design movement, in which architects draw freely from architectural styles of the past, Stern said he believes it is possible to create buildings that are compatible with older structures without being overly derivative.

"We hope that what we are going to do for Sheppard Pratt will be a continuation and a reinterpretation of what is here, not some abstract thing that just simply appeared one day," he said. "I hope there is an opportunity to restore and recapture much of the buildings for regular use, and not a museum."

When one works in the language of the past, "that doesn't mean one is trapped in the language of the past," he added. "We all use the language that has been spoken more or less in the same way for centuries, but it has evolved and it is evolving."

At the end of his slide presentation to the hospital trustees, Stern showed one image that depicted the expansion as a mid-rise complex, with a series of cloisters and courtyards separating patient-care areas. The proposed expansion had pitched roofs and other forms that recall the lines of the original hospital buildings, which would be converted to other uses.

In a nod to preservationists, Stern said he would very much like to see the hospital's old power plant preserved to define a gateway to the new complex. "If this building goes," he said, "I do." One building he does not like, he said, is a 1969 structure called the Central Building, which connects the original Vaux buildings.

Other key designers from Stern's office, Robert A. M. Stern Architects, are partner Paul Whalen; associate Nancy Thiel; and senior associate Adam Anuszkiewicz. Other members of the design team include HDR Inc., the architect of record, and Heery International, the project manager. Peter Pearre of Trostel and Pearre is assisting as a historic preservation consultant. The health system is working to secure funds and receive all necessary permits in time to begin construction next spring.

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