Art students' apartments an homage to modern life

MICA building features wide range of amenities

September 09, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Maryland Institute College of Art officials say the college's new deluxe apartment complex will help students make the transition from their freshman dormitory to off-campus living.

There could be a problem: The students who moved last week into the building that once housed the Hospital for the Women of Maryland may never want to leave.

And why should they? The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff House, as the 115-year-old building on West Lafayette Avenue in Bolton Hill is now known, is full of the premium features and whimsical frills one would expect in a refurbished Soho loft.

To mention just a few: large apartments with stainless steel countertops in the kitchen, satellite television in the living room and Murphy beds in the bedroom; a cafeteria outfitted with Brazilian granite and a fused-glass-tiled, wood-burning pizza oven; a dining room with plush disco-style banquettes and exposed brick walls.

Where thousands of mothers once suffered the pangs of childbirth, 202 lucky students now bask in the comforts of college, 21st-century style.

"Compared to other colleges I've seen, it's ridiculous how nice it is - especially for a sophomore like me," Kate Morrill, a photography major from New Hampshire, said as she gave a tour of her apartment, with its extra-wide shower, wood floors and big windows.

The nationwide trend toward amenity-filled student housing has been under way for several years, as colleges compete for students accustomed to the luxuries of modern suburban life. At private and public colleges, high-speed Internet hookups and air conditioning are becoming standard in rooms, as are gourmet menus in dining halls.

But the move toward premium college housing is especially evident at the new MICA complex, where the hospital backdrop serves as a stark contrast to contemporary student living.

In the space that used to serve as a hospital kitchen - "with big walk-in fridges that chilled lots of Jell-O," said Michael Molla, MICA vice president for operations - students can now choose from an array of offerings, from vegetarian dishes to pizzas fresh from the wood-burning oven. The Meyerhoff House now serves as the main dining area, and general meeting place, for the entire 1,350-student campus.

"Everything's cooked from scratch," Molla said. "We know from students that they don't want anything processed by other food providers."

In the basement that once housed the cold-storage room where the deceased were kept before being transported from the hospital, students will take tai chi and yoga in a gym with a maple floor.

Upstairs, where mothers gave birth to about 20,000 babies over the years, students, mostly sophomores, now paint or draw in two- and three-bedroom apartments designed for art-making, with lofts or Murphy beds that can be flipped into the wall to allow room for easels. The cost is between $5,400 and $5,800 a school year (about $600 a month), including utilities, cable Internet access and satellite TV, and not including the meal plan.

And on the top floor that once held the solarium, the luckiest students enjoy harbor views and full-ceiling skylights.

"Before, I thought of this as a hospital, but when I walked in, I stopped doing that," said junior graphics design major Erin Bender. "A lot of us are surprised by how nice it is."

The Meyerhoff House isn't the only deluxe student housing opening in a hospital setting. Also last week, 600 students, most from Towson University, moved into new apartments on the campus of the Sheppard Pratt psychiatric hospital.

Students living in the apartments, which cost from $530 to $645 a month, have access to a heated swimming pool, saunas and a game room, among other amenities. "The pitch that got me was the gym and the tanning beds. That's something every other place doesn't have," said Melissa White, a Towson junior from New Jersey.

MICA officials say the elegant touches in the Meyerhoff House are more the result of creative design than extravagant spending (the conversion of the building, which most recently was a nursing home, cost $16 million). They point to the high-tech vinyl floor in the buffet area that changes colors as you walk across it, hologram-style, or the jagged slab of black galaxy granite in the downstairs bathrooms.

"I don't think it's luxury - it's the thoughtful application of good materials," Molla said.

Many of the design ideas came from students, who wanted the building to reflect the school's quirkiness - and to encourage their own creativity. "I'm thinking about doing environmental design, so it's inspiring to see what they did with this," said Annetta McGuckin, a freshman from Maine.

The primary purpose of the new complex, though, is to allow sophomores, who make up three-quarters of the building's tenants, to live on campus with their classmates for another year before they move off campus, officials said. Breaking the building into apartments, complete with kitchens, rather than dormitory-type rooms, is an attempt to ready students for independent living, they said.

But officials acknowledge the plan could backfire. Come next spring, the school may be faced with many sophomores reluctant to move to more Spartan quarters - leaving little room for the next class. There are no set rules about who has priority for the Meyerhoff rooms, but that may have to change.

"We are hoping that personal growth and development occurs over this year and that people will naturally feel it's time to move off campus," said Jana Varwig, the vice president for student affairs. "That's our hope. But we're a little nervous."

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