Windows into the Pratt

Library: Enoch Pratt brings back an old tradition of eye-catching window displays with a new artistic style.

January 19, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

In the busy shuffle of Cathedral Street, Sally and Decatur Miller were two of thousands who often took a moment from their Saturday shopping or Sunday churchgoing to admire the "show windows" in Baltimore's public library.

That was a half-century ago. Today, thanks to a $50,000 gift from the North Baltimore couple, the Enoch Pratt Free Library's street-level windows are stylish again.

The Millers' hope is that the project will freshen the 70-year-old library's public face by displaying striking designs in 12 of the most visible windows. The couple, and library leaders, believe that the images will catch the attention of busy people passing by and will provide a little brightness and warmth, much the way they did 50 years ago when the windows first caught the Millers' eyes.

"We thought it would be too bad to lose this wonderful civic asset," said Decatur Miller, 70, a library trustee and retired chairman of the Piper & Marbury law firm. "We wanted to spark the return of that kind of window design."

"You actually went downtown to see the windows for their originality and good design," Miller said. "They weren't trying to sell anything except the library and the city."

The new designs, done by New York designer Lorelei Guttman, are arrangements of musical, literary, political and theatrical motifs.

Civil rights and the city's Vivat! celebration of the 300th birthday of the Russian city of St. Petersburg are most prominently featured.

Guttman said her vision was to fuse the Pratt's proud window tradition with a contemporary look.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, to have a client like that, a library as opposed to retail. People get to learn something," Guttman said. "We wanted to bring it back to its heyday and get people excited. It's just a beautiful building."

The Pratt's director, Carla D. Hayden, said her hope is that the windows grab the public's eye and play a part in inviting more visitors inside.

"They're lively and eye-catching, each one a vignette," Hayden said. "I've seen people do a double-take and stand in the rain to look in the windows. And they're wonderful at night."

When it opened in 1933, the Enoch Pratt Free Library's architecture stirred comment because it departed from lofty architectural touches such as pillars.

In old newspaper stories and library documents, critics scoffed that the Pratt's down-to-earth, easy-to-enter appeal seemed more like a department store on Howard Street.

But the innovative windows - the concept of the Pratt director, Joseph L. Wheeler, who oversaw the building - were a hit with the public.

The Pratt soon became known as the first big-city library to have a friendly facade with street-level doors and windows.

In the early years, library exhibits changed every six weeks and often focused on timely topics such as the human side of urban renewal and the Marshall Plan to repair war-torn Europe. There were also bright messages in the windows, such as one that reminded passers-by that June is "dairy month."

By contrast, the current designs appear uncluttered and stylishly simple, with lighting that sets them off at night. Authentic period pieces, such as an old black telephone and a pair of binoculars, help to transport the image back in time.

Few books are used in the windows to remind viewers that there are lots of them inside.

Near the corner of Cathedral and Franklin streets, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s visage appears behind bold raised letters spelling out his famous words, "I have a dream."

In another window, the figure of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Yuri Temirkanov, is shown against a red velvet curtain and gold music stands.

In another window showcasing author Zora Neale Hurston's work space, an old Royal typewriter sits on a writing desk, with two articles Hurston authored for the Saturday Evening Post placed on the floor.

The most high-tech design is a red digital ticker-tape machine that offers the public information on how to contact Pratt reference librarians. Its message is simple: "Have a ??? Ask us now! (410) 396-5430."

Jeff Korman, manager of the Pratt's Maryland department, said, "Now the look lends itself to an information technology society. To me, they're avant-garde. They're also promoting Baltimore, and we want people downtown."

Hayden also said the new window designs were a good public "prelude" for the planned renovation of the building.

"They were such a focal point for the city," Hayden said. "As we look forward to a renovation, this is something to bring that back and carry on the [window] tradition."

The Millers said Guttman - who has helped design windows for Tiffany's on Fifth Avenue in New York - realized their vision of dressing up the Pratt windows for a new age.

"It really is a thrill, tremendously satisfying to see it," Decatur Miller said. "A lot of people pass that library every day and I'd like them to say, `Hey, I'd like to stop and see that.'"

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