America has had dozens of different flags over the years, but it's never had anything quite like the one taking shape near the Inner Harbor.
For the past two weeks, workers have been slowly piecing together a 30-by-42-foot banner based on the one Mary Pickersgill made to fly over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814.
FOR THE RECORD - The flag that flew at Ft. McHenry in 1814 and became known as the Star-Spangled Banner had 15 stars and 15 stripes because that was the congressionally approved flag design at the time. There were 18 U.S. states by 1814. A new flag design, with 13 stripes and stars to represent every state, including new states as they joined, was not approved until 1818. (The new flag wall at Baltimore's Flag House replicates the design of the 1814 flag.)
Like the Pickersgill flag, the new one has 15 stars and 15 stripes - reflecting the number of states in the Union at that time. It's exactly the same size as the original, which inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became the national anthem.
But unlike the 1814 version, this one is made entirely of glass - 28 colored panels that together depict the Stars and Stripes.
The Great Flag Window is the front facade of the Star Spangled Banner Museum, a $3.7 million attraction scheduled to open June 12.
It's an expansion and renovation of the historic Flag House and Star Spangled Banner Museum, a national landmark at 844 E. Pratt St.
Sponsors say the project marks the first time the U.S. flag has been re-created in glass and made part of a building this way. They're counting on it to spark greater interest in the American flag and its history.
"It's the first time that a window is a flag and a flag is a window," said Sally Johnston, the museum's executive director. "The window is actually the south wall of the building. People are going to be surprised when they see how big it is."
With less than a month to go until the opening (and Flag Day on June 14), Johnston admits she's relieved to see the window nearing completion.
"We were getting a little anxious," she said. "They're working around the clock so we can make our schedule."
The Flag House and Star Spangled Banner Museum property has been open to the public since 1927 so visitors can learn the history of the American flag and the War of 1812. It includes Pickersgill's former home and grounds.
The two-level museum has been designed by RCG Inc. of Baltimore to provide first-class display space for exhibits and improved back-of-the-house space for staffers' offices and storage. There will also be a gift shop and orientation theater.
The largest single donation for the project - $1 million - came from former city harbormaster Jean Hofmeister, who died in 1986. He requested that the project include a full-sized replica of Pickersgill's flag.
At first, Johnston said, museum directors weren't sure how to fulfill Hofmeister's request, since a cloth replica of the flag would be difficult to hang and would fade over time. They also didn't want to display anything that people might confuse with the genuine article, which hangs at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
The idea for a glass flag came from architect Jonathan Fishman of RCG.
"Jonathan said, `Why don't we make the window the flag?'" Johnston recalled. "That solved our problem. It connects the story of the "Star-Spangled Banner" and the Flag House in a very clear, visual way. It also shows how big the flag is and how small the house is."
The flag window is a structural glazing system, similar to one at Baltimore's Convention Center, in which glass is put in place without mullions.
The glass was made and installed by MERO Structures Inc., a German company with an affiliate in Wisconsin. The panels were made in Germany, shipped to Norfolk, Va., and then sent by barge to Baltimore. Each panel weighs between 360 pounds and 400 pounds and has four holes cut near the corners so it can be bolted to a tubular steel frame.
The glass is colored by a ceramic "frit" material that comes in thin stripes of red, white and blue. The colored material is affixed to a clear panel, which is then laminated to a second clear panel so the colored portion is sandwiched in-between.
When people get close to the glass, they will see the individual thin colored stripes. From farther away, they will see only the larger flag pattern. Besides seeing the flag pattern on the glass, visitors will also be able to see through the window.
For the past two weeks, glaziers Keith Salosky, Dave Cunningham and Heath Breakiron and superintendent Mark Antonelli have been attaching the glass panels to the metal frame. By the end of last week, it was finally possible to see the complete design.
The work entailed lifting each glass panel by crane, sliding it onto the four support pins and bolting it in place. The glaziers worked slowly, installing anywhere from four to 10 panels a day. This week they'll finish caulking in between the panels to make the building weather-tight.
Henry H. Lewis Contractors of Owings Mills is the general contractor. The glaziers, who work for MERO, travel around the country completing difficult glass installations at museums, hotels and other public buildings. Although they've worked on all kinds of structures, they said, they've never worked on anything like the flag window, which cost approximately $400,000.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing to see," said Antonelli.