Walters buys townhouses for possible expansion


October 21, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

The Walters Art Museum is acquiring three townhouses in Baltimore's Mount Vernon historic district as a possible partial location for its next major expansion.

Museum director Gary Vikan told community groups this month that the museum has bought or has contracts to buy apartment buildings at 606, 608 and 610 Cathedral St. to increase its options for expansion, but that it has no specific plans for the buildings at this point.

The museum occupies much of the city block directly east of the three houses - an area bounded roughly by Cathedral, Centre and Charles streets and Mount Vernon Place. It also owns the parking lot at the northwest corner of Cathedral and Centre streets - the land just south of the townhouses.

Museum directors have been considering options for expansion since even before they reopened the museum's Centre Street building last fall after a $24 million reconstruction and reinstallation.

Directors and trustees want to add a Center for Art and Technical Studies, art storage space, an Interactive Learning Center and permanent and temporary exhibition galleries.

Vikan sees the expansion making the Walters more of a complex like the Getty Center in Los Angeles, with several different buildings within one walkable setting. He says it will be the museum's capital project for the next decade, in the same way that the Centre Street building renovation was the project for the 1990s, and represents the first major expansion since the Hackerman House opened as a home for the museum's Asian arts in 1991.

On Election Day, city voters will be asked to approve a bond bill that would make $750,000 available for the expansion. The entire project is expected to cost $74 million, funded by a combination of public and private sources. A fact sheet prepared by the museum identifies the northwest corner of Cathedral and Centre streets as the proposed location.

"The new building will play an expanding role in education, in the presentation of major permanent and temporary exhibitions, and in the crucial, behind-the-scenes activities of scholarship and conservation," the museum states in the fact sheet. "Today, each of these areas of activity is limited by lack of sufficient space."

The museum is also working with other Mount Vernon institutions to identify ways to provide enough parking for visitors and staff, especially if it builds on its parking lot.

Adding the townhouses to the parking lot would increase the size of the property that the Walters has available for expansion. But it is unclear whether the museum would seek to raze all of part of the three buildings to increase the "footprint" for a new building, or simply renovate the three townhouses to meet some of its expansion needs and then build on the open lot.

At a meeting of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Improvement Association last week, residents questioned the idea of the nonprofit museum tearing down private buildings in the historic district for its expansion - or even taking them off tax rolls.

They noted that the Cathedral Street facades are visible from the west square of Mount Vernon Place, one of the city's most treasured parks, and that the houses were identified as worthy of preservation in a study conducted by a committee of the Midtown Community Benefits District.

All three buildings are in the Mount Vernon historic district, any changes to their exteriors would have to be approved by Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.

Vikan said the museum is in the early planning stages for its expansion. He said the museum most likely won't be ready to begin construction until 2007 or later.

"This is the largest thing we've ever done," he said at the community meeting. "It's a 10- to 12-year project. ... It's important to hear your voice."

Vikan also indicated the museum may want to consider other possible expansion sites in addition to the northwest corner of Cathedral and Centre streets.

The Walters is buying the town houses north of the parking lot now, he said, "so we have a way to expand in that direction" if the trustees choose to do that. "I don't know if that's where we're going to go," he said. But, "I cannot not have that option."

On the other hand, "we might want to go west," he said. "We might want to go south. We have to do a space analysis" over the next 18 months and hire an architect.

The four-story building at 610 Cathedral St. dates from 1855 and may have been designed by Niernsee and Neilson - one of Baltimore's best firms at the time - according to a survey on file with the preservation commission. The three-story building at 608 Cathedral dates from 1860. The three-story structure at 606 also dates from the 1800s but was severely damaged by fire and substantially rebuilt in the 1950s.

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