Graham House to be annex for arts school


Major renovations in line for mansion

Mansion will find new life in hands of art school

April 14, 2003|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

An Italianate mansion near Mount Vernon Place is headed for new life as an annex to Baltimore's School for the Arts.

The longtime owner of the residence at 704 Cathedral St., Laurence Glass, is expected to turn over his keys to the building to city representatives tomorrow, enabling the school to proceed with its multimillion-dollar conversion.

The city took title to the building in November after receiving City Council authorization to acquire it through a "quick take" condemnation procedure, and has been leasing it back to the former owner since then. The sale price is still uncertain, but the city has deposited $400,000 in court as part of the process.

Built in 1850 and known as the Graham House, the three-story brownstone residence stands just south of the School for the Arts, which occupies the former Alcazar Hotel at 712 Cathedral Street.

It is named for first owner William H. Graham, son-in-law of financier George Brown, the second chairman of Alex. Brown & Sons. It also was briefly the home of writer H.L. Mencken, among others.

The school initially sought the building to house its visual arts programs, including digital photography and video editing. But administrators are now looking at ways to use it to carry out a more ambitious expansion and modernization that will enable them to enhance their curriculum and increase enrollment.

Director Leslie Shepard said the expansion is being designed to accommodate 375 students in grades 9 through 12, up from the current enrollment of 311, and 800 students in after-school and weekend programs, up from 550.

As part of the expansion, she said, administrators also hope to renovate portions of the original school, which opened in 1979 and is starting to have infrastructure problems.

"We want to bring our programs up to the standards of today, especially given all the technical advances in the arts," Shepard said. "This is going to allow us to do things we've wanted to do with our programs for a long time. It's going to help the community, too."

The school has hired Cho Benn Holback + Associates to serve as master planners and architects for the expansion and modernization.

Cho Benn Holback is a specialist in historic preservation and in the design of educational and arts facilities, with projects ranging from the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center on Howard Street to the performing arts center under construction at Park School.

Its other arts-related projects include the Centennial Hall Dance Studio at Bryn Mawr School, the Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Center for the Arts at Goucher College and a proposed expansion of the American Visionary Arts Museum on Key Highway.

Shepard said the architects have been interviewing department heads and others at the school to determine which programs might best fit into the 28,000-square-foot mansion and how the older building, which dates from 1924 and has 93,000 square feet of space, could be improved.

Because the Graham House is in the Mount Vernon historic district, any changes to its exterior must be approved by Baltimore's preservation commission.

Architect Diane Cho said the design team is working on preliminary plans that call for connecting the two buildings and adding up to 30,000 square feet of space in an addition on the west side of the Graham house. The team is also exploring ways to make better use of underutilized space in the former hotel, she said.

Cho said she and her partners sought the School for the Arts commission because "it combines all of our favorite things" - preservation, education and working with the arts community.

"Our interest as architects is to restore 704 Cathedral," including the brownstone exterior and the primary spaces inside, she said. "It was once a great home, part of the Alex. Brown family. There is a grand staircase and formal rooms in the front. It was broken into apartments at one point, but it's in pretty good shape. A lot is still there that's original to the house. It would be great to bring it back."

Cho said she is particularly intrigued by the notion of creating spaces where artists of different disciplines might collaborate. One challenge, she said, will be creating a school that is well organized but still has a sense of spontaneity. Another challenge will be staging the construction so the school can remain open while work is under way.

Glass has been moving his belongings out of the house for the past several months. According to his real estate counselor, Herbert Davis, he has made every effort to work with the school, giving representatives access to the building and providing scale drawings to the architects.

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