Glass on Mount Royal

October 17, 2003

ITS GEOMETRIC shapes -- opaque white by day, translucent at night -- are strikingly enigmatic. There is no mystery, though, about the mission of the Maryland Institute College of Art's new $20 million glass edifice: It will enable students to stretch the limits of computer-created artistry.

The Brown Center, dedicated today to Baltimore investment fund manager Eddie C. Brown and his wife, Sylvia, is worth celebrating because it represents far more than an educational advance in digital creativity. It is also another important anchor in the Mount Royal cultural district.

Like its neighbors, the Lyric Opera House and the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the Brown Center is guaranteed to become familiar among the general public. That's because it houses a 550-seat auditorium that will be used by both the college and outside organizations for performances and lectures. It also has exhibit space that is connected to the institute's new main gallery in the Fox Building next door.

In 1907, when the Maryland Institute's Main Building was erected on Mount Royal Avenue, its Renaissance Revival architecture reflected the school's concentration on fine arts and painting. That strong focus continues, but digital arts and graphic design have grown to be the third largest major -- which explains the new building's prime location across the street from the original structure.

As it has grown into a leading national art school, the Maryland Institute has become the central institutional prop of the surrounding Bolton Hill neighborhood. The college has creatively recycled several industrial-era relics -- ranging from the landmark Mount Royal Station to an abandoned hospital -- into academic or student use. Meanwhile, its dormitories have added around-the-clock pedestrian presence to the streets.

Today, when Bolton Hill's stately Victorian rowhouses are fetching record prices, it's hard to believe that only three decades ago the neighborhood was struggling against squalor and fighting for survival. A splendid addition like the Brown Center signifies victory. But it also underscores that the quest for improvement must go further and extend to adjoining areas still at risk.

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