City seeks help coloring in the Howard St. Bridge

Internet poll to determine outcome of artistic dispute

October 29, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The mayor wants it Kelly green. The Maryland Institute College of Art president wants it rust brown. But for now, they're both seeing nothing but red.

At stake is the color the city will paint one of Baltimore's most visible structures, a double-arch steel bridge that spans the Jones Falls Expressway. The 1938 Howard Street Bridge is now painted a garish orange that is peeling after years of neglect, and it's overdue for a coat of paint.

A $5 million project to restore the 1,000-foot-long bridge is under way, making it the last in a series of city expressway bridges to be painted according to a color design decided a dozen years ago by a Baltimore artist. But there's just one problem: Mayor Martin O'Malley doesn't like the proposed color scheme of rust brown, green and blue with a splash of yellow.

O'Malley said he thought the color scheme was "God-awful" when he first saw it at a summer ribbon-cutting. The colors on the bridge, he said, are better left decided by public opinion instead of art experts and "the artistic dictates of yesteryear."

"I do know a lot about transportation funding, the city charter, command and control, and the power of the office of mayor," O'Malley said Friday as he took his first public stand on an artistic matter. "I'll put my understanding of popular taste, culture, likes and dislikes, on the line."

The mayor is asking Baltimoreans to soothe the troubled waters by voting for the colors they prefer in a poll on the city government Web site. Voters will have two choices on the Web site: one, a color scheme proposed by the mayor with a Kelly green arch; and the other, the original design with a rust-brown arch.

Word of O'Malley's ire has reached Fred Lazarus IV, president of the Maryland Institute and an authority on urban landscapes. The institute's campus lines up next to the Howard Street Bridge, including its new glass Brown Center, and Lazarus can almost see the bridge from his high-ceilinged pistachio green office.

In a letter to O'Malley last month, Lazarus defended the proposed bridge colors. The color scheme was devised by Stan Edmister, a Baltimore infrastructure artist who once studied at MICA and has chosen the colors on every other bridge across the Jones Falls Expressway.

"As a result of his work in Baltimore, [Edmister] developed a national reputation," Lazarus wrote to O'Malley. "The scheme he originally proposed ... approaches the bridge as a single piece of sculpture. ... I think we can trust Stan's judgment, based on how successful all his other designs have been."

Lazarus said in an interview, "Stan understands how all the colors hold up and the relationships among the bridges. The mayor doesn't really understand how the color palette relates to structure and function."

The Howard Street Bridge is scheduled to be the last bridge finished in a series of Edmister color patterns, intended to form a visual whole, city officials said. More than a decade ago, Edmister won a National Endowment for the Arts grant to support his painted bridges project -- which include the St. Paul Street Bridge, the Calvert Street Bridge and, most recently, the pair of North Charles Street bridges by Pennsylvania Station, painted deep blue with violet trim.

Most of the bridges in Edmister's "Gateway of Color to Baltimore" design were painted in the 1990s, but the Howard Street Bridge -- considered the central component -- was left for last. But before any new colors can be applied, the lead-based old paint is now being blasted off.

O'Malley, who does not know Edmister, received a letter from him that stated, in part, "To change the color scheme would be to do harm to the concept of infrastructure as art."

O'Malley said he was more concerned about getting the colors right for the next quarter-century or so. (The Howard Street Bridge was last painted 21 years ago.)

"I was so excited to be able to see the new model because people had been complaining about how tattered it looks with graffiti and peeling paint," O'Malley said yesterday. "Then when I saw [the color scheme], I did a double-take and said, `Honestly, is this a joke? Are you kidding?'"

O'Malley added, "I saw the [proposed] colors only once and thought how God-awful they looked."

So the mayor came up with his own idea and is willing to pit it against the other version in a contest of public opinion this week. In a highly unusual vote, the City Hall Web site features renderings of the Howard Street Bridge in both schemes and asks people to indicate which one they prefer. The deadline is Friday.

His choice of Kelly green as a dominant color, the mayor said, is not necessarily about his Celtic heritage. "This is not a narrow ethnic predilection," he said.

O'Malley promised to abide by the results of the Internet poll -- but he'll cross that bridge when he comes to it.

The Web site address to view and vote on the proposed bridge colors is www.Baltimorecity.gov.

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