Science Center prepares to break ground


October 14, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

After years of planning and fund raising, the Maryland Science Center is getting ready to break ground for a $40 million expansion that will open by Memorial Day of 2004.

Backers passed a key hurdle last month when Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel approved a revised design, clearing the way for construction to begin.

Two more approvals came last week, when Baltimore's planning commission approved a resubdivision of the construction site and an amendment to the city's Recreation and Parks master plan so the project can proceed.

In addition, the science center has passed the 75 percent mark in its $40 million fund drive, and is lining up a bridge loan so it can begin construction while it raises the rest of the money, according to executive director Gregory Andorfer.

"We're all very excited that this project is getting under way," said Richard Hesse, chief operating officer. "This represents a major growth step for the Maryland Science Center, one we are convinced will benefit our visitors from the state of Maryland and beyond."

The addition is the largest of several expansions planned for the science center. It will rise on a one-acre parcel north of the existing building, which opened in 1976 at 601 Light St.

Preliminary site work began this fall with the erection of a construction fence, and actual construction is expected to begin in the next several weeks, with Whiting Turner Contracting Co. as the construction manager.

Besides giving the science center a new face to the city, the addition will help boost annual attendance to 1 million visitors, from the current 600,000 a year.

Plans by Design Collective of Baltimore call for a multilevel addition that will double the amount of display space inside and create the country's first major exhibit on dinosaurs that once roamed the East Coast. The goal, directors say, is a total makeover of the science center, which opened before the late-1970s revolution in participatory and interactive exhibits transformed science and technology centers from musty museums to lively and ever-changing urban destinations.

Andorfer has said he envisions creating a multimedia attraction so rich and full of information that it will do for science what the ESPNZone restaurants do for sports.

The new wing will be home for exhibits devoted to the earth sciences, including geology, meteorology, the Chesapeake Bay and paleontology, the study of prehistoric plant and animal life through fossils. The most prominent feature will be an "Earth Sciences and Dinosaur Hall" with a large glass window revealing life-sized dinosaur figures inside, including Astrodon johnstoni, Maryland's official state dinosaur.

The new hall will make Baltimore's science center the first in the country to mount a major exhibit on East Coast dinosaurs, and will include features such as a "dino mountain" and a "dino dig" where kids can hunt for fossils.

Other elements of the expansion include a Temporary Exhibits Gallery for traveling exhibits and an improved loading dock to get them in and out of the center; an area called "Hands on Minds on" for new interactive exhibits; and visitor amenities such as an expanded lobby and a cafe.

The exterior was originally to be clad in brick and copper. The revised plans call for the copper to be replaced by aluminum, which is closer to the silver reflective surface of the science center's IMAX theater. In addition, two large north facing windows have been redesigned to look less like TV sets than they did in earlier versions.

The science center is the third major downtown attraction to begin a major construction project this year. The National Aquarium in Baltimore broke ground last month for a $61.8 million addition that will open in 2005. The Maryland Stadium Authority and Baltimore Center for Performing Arts are turning the old Hippodrome theater at 12 N. Eutaw St. into a $62.7 million performing arts center scheduled to open in 2004.

Camden Station facelift

Another downtown landmark, historic Camden Station, will be getting a $1 million facelift befor the opening of the baseball season next spring.

The Maryland Stadium Authority last week approved a plan to spend $998,135 to complete a series of repairs designed to make the vacant building on Camden Street more structurally sound and weather-tight.

Part of the work will involve repairing unsafe floors by adding new steel supports and wooden floor boards. Other work will include repointing exterior brick walls, repainting wood surfaces and patching the roof where it leaks, according to stadium authority executive director Richard Slosson.

The 1857 train station, the northern entry to Oriole Park, Camden Yards hasn't been occupied for more than a decade.

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