Under Glass

A soaring new atrium lights up the University of Maryland Medical Center.

A Light Touch

Soaring new atrium caps off $218-million project and represents the heart of the University of Maryland Medical Center

Cover Story

November 09, 2003|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

For years, a chief symbol of the University of Maryland Medical Center has been the domed image of Davidge Hall, the anatomical theater where students once gathered in secret to learn about the human body by dissecting cadavers unearthed from nearby graveyards.

Now the teaching hospital has a new symbol that features a less clandestine meeting place -- the soaring, skylit atrium of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Building.

Part of a nine-level, $218-million addition that will be dedicated Saturday, the glass-covered atrium is the new heart and soul of the west side medical center, which admits 31,000 patients a year and trains more than half of the physicians practicing in Maryland.

In the most basic sense, this atrium is a giant, multipurpose room and pedestrian concourse containing a series of garden terraces that serve as waiting areas for visitors and patients. But its significance to the medical system goes far beyond its utility as an oversized waiting room.

Tucked inside this Lombard Street complex -- hidden from passers-by -- the atrium represents the final phase of a $500-million expansion and renovation campaign to recast the medical center's image. Seen for many years as an inner-city hospital that cared for a largely indigent population, the University of Maryland Medical Center is now forging a reputation as a cutting-edge institution serving a statewide constitu-ency that seeks the finest in health care.

The atrium may not be the Weinberg Building's most important feature from the standpoint of health-care delivery, but it's clearly the most memorable. The building also houses a consolidated emergency department that serves adults and children, a surgical procedure and recovery floor that the medical center calls the "OR of the Future," expanded imaging areas, and a food court, among other areas.

Over the past year, as individual departments opened in phases, it hasn't always been easy to understand how each fit into the medical center's larger vision for growth. With completion of the atrium, it is finally possible for a visitor to stand in one place and see the transformation in its totality.

The atrium is the finishing touch that pulls the massive building effort together. It's also one of the most impressive new spaces in Baltimore, effectively placing the equivalent of a small city under glass. Its light and airy ambience was intended to be an antidote to the shadowy, mazelike corridors found in many hospitals -- and a metaphor for the treatment administrators aim to provide.

"It's like the care process: You always want to know where you are rather than get lost in the deep, dark corners of the hospital," said medical center chief executive officer John W. Ashworth III. "I want to have a bright, open understanding of where I am when I come to get care."

Capping decades of work

Just as the atrium is a capstone for the Weinberg Building, the building tops off a 20-year effort to rebuild the medical center after it converted in 1984 from a public to a private institution.

Designed by the New York firms of Perkins & Will and Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF), the 380,000-square-foot Weinberg Building is the most expensive single structure to be completed on the west side of downtown Baltimore, where construction projects representing a combined investment of $1 billion are under way or planned.

Occupying a midblock parcel on the north side of the 600 block of W. Lombard St., it builds on the pioneering efforts of former medical system president and chief executive officer Morton I. Rapoport to create a more "hospitable hospital" whose consumer-friendly atmosphere is a key part of the healing process. In fact, it grew out of a three-phase master plan developed during Rapoport's tenure to guide the medical center's growth.

The first phase included construction of the R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, which opened in 1989 near Lombard and Penn streets to treat people with the most severe injuries, including head or gunshot wounds and multiple traumas. It represented an investment of $130 million.

Phase two brought construction of the Homer Gudelsky Building, which opened in 1994 at Lombard and Greene streets. Costing $170 million, that project provided space for cancer treatment, cardiology, neurology, organ transplants and most of the hospital's intensive-care beds.

The Weinberg Buil-ding, named to honor the founders of a charitable organization that made the lead donation toward construction costs, is the third phase. Designed to incorporate the latest technological advances and increase efficiency, it brings together emergency care, diagnostic evaluation, surgical suites and clinical care units.

Its 55,000-square-foot emergency center opened last November and includes separate adult and pediatric waiting and treatment areas and expanded space for specialized services, such as a chest pain evaluation unit.

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