Memorial makes the monumental minimal

Structure gives short shrift to war veterans

Architecture: Review

September 08, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Baltimore has memorials to presidents, to poets, to the woman who sewed the Star-Spangled Banner.

Now a city known for its monuments and statuary is about to build something new, and a bit off-the-wall: A memorial to a memorial.

The Maryland Stadium Authority has approved a contract for construction of a $775,547 structure in the Camden Yards area to honor war veterans.

But besides honoring veterans, this design also commemorates the city's last memorial erected in their memory: the recently demolished 33rd Street facade of Memorial Stadium.

Typically, memorials are works of art or architecture intended to help people remember some person or event. Their designers usually seek fresh ways to make their creations memorable and meaningful.

Designing the new Camden Yards memorial involved a different sort of exercise. Rather than starting fresh, its architects began with the idea of using elements from the 1953 stadium as a way to make a connection back to its Memorial Wall, which already has a firm place in Marylanders' memories.

The design calls for construction of a curving wall and landscaped plaza on the walkway between Oriole Park and Ravens Stadium. Instead of having a convex curve like Memorial Stadium's front wall, this wall will be concave, as a way to draw in passers-by and give them a place to pause. It will have a granite surface, rather than the concrete used on 33rd Street.

The new wall will bear some of the stainless steel letters that were mounted on the 33rd Street Memorial Wall; they were taken down before it was razed last year to make way for a senior housing community. The phrase spelled out by those letters, "TIME WILL NOT DIM THE GLORY OF THEIR DEEDS," is the last line from a longer inscription at Memorial Stadium. A new, second line will be etched in the granite stating who is being honored.

The Camden Yards memorial also will feature an urn containing soil from all U.S. military cemeteries around the globe, a vessel that had been on display inside Memorial Stadium. The urn will rest inside a vandal-proof glass case on a pedestal at one end of the wall, along with a marker containing an image of Memorial Stadium and facts about its history. Flags of the United States, Maryland and Baltimore, seating, and landscaping complete the design.

The memorial was designed by Cochran, Stephenson & Donkervoet, a local firm well known as an architect of the Baltimore Convention Center and other key civic commissions. Its president, Michael Bolinger, is a Vietnam War veteran.

Last spring, stadium authority officials voiced concerns that the state would not be able to start building the memorial this year because the General Assembly didn't allocate sufficient construction funds. But when demolition of Memorial Stadium cost $1.4 million less than legislators had allocated, the authority opted to use some of the unspent funds to build the Camden Yards memorial. Construction is set to begin on Veteran's Day, with Whiting-Turner as the contractor.

Reusing artifacts

If the sole task of the new memorial were to serve as a showplace for salvaged fragments from Memorial Stadium, one might argue that CS&D has met the challenge. Its wall appears perfectly serviceable as a backdrop for the letters and transplanted urn.

One might even argue that the project's derivative nature is a logical outgrowth of the postmodern design movement, which has encouraged architects to dip into the grab bag of history. For 20 years, architects have been salvaging bits and pieces of demolished buildings and incorporating them into new structures like so much bric-a-brac. It was only a matter of time before someone started salvaging letters from buildings as well.

What is troubling about this project is not what the architects have done, but what they failed to do: to create an effective memorial to the group that was supposed to be commemorated in the first place - the war veterans.

The idea was to design a new memorial that essentially filled the same role as the old Memorial Wall, largely to appease preservationists and others who didn't want to see the original disappear. If artifacts from the old wall could be reused, so much the better.

Working with the stadium authority, which also coordinated the demolition of Memorial Stadium, the architects selected a site within Camden Yards for the new memorial, designed the curving wall and incorporated the letters and urn. They included the marker with its image of Memorial Stadium - the essence of the memorial to the memorial - for visitors years from now who may be unfamiliar with its history.

"There was a desire that the public today and tomorrow understand what Memorial Stadium was and why the words are where they are," Bolinger said. The marker "shows the lineage of the history of the memorial."

A similar marker is being planned for the 33rd Street property, to reinforce the connection between the two locations.

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