Where the past embraces and teaches the future

Historical Society expansion shows a commitment to Marylanders


November 30, 2003|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Stuffy. Stodgy. Uptight. Predictable.

Visitors might have been excused for using those words to describe the Maryland Historical Society in the past. But a three-story gallery wing and glass-clad entrance pavilion, both of which opened this month, give a decidedly different impression.

With completion of the $10 million project - the culmination of a seven-year expansion program - the historical society finally has exhibition spaces worthy of its remarkable collections of Maryland art and artifacts. From its zinc-coated exterior to its third-level gallery with a 20-foot-high ceiling, the exhibit building brings new clarity and order to the Mount Vernon history campus, while giving curators a chance to rethink how the collections are displayed.

The additions also may change perceptions of the nearly 160-year-old institution itself. They have a sense of light and air, refinement and sophistication not found in the older, Beaux Arts-influenced structures on the block. They announce that this is a place concerned with the future as well as the past. The primary challenge for the society and its staff will be deciding how to make the most of them.

The Maryland Historical Society is not a museum in the traditional sense. Founded in 1844, the private, nonprofit society includes a museum, library, press and educational division, and has an annual operating budget of approximately $4 million. Over the years, it has amassed extensive collections of paintings, prints, furniture, textiles and other decorative arts, with an emphasis on Marylandia. Its 55,000 visitors a year can find anything from a giant figure of Nipper the dog to Francis Scott Key's original manuscript of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

More than anything, the society is "a research and educational institution with the mission of helping Marylanders learn more about their past in order to chart their future," said the director, Dennis Fiori. "We see ourselves as providing the people of Maryland with a service, which is bringing them their history."

The historical society exhibits objects not as individual works of beauty - the way an art museum does - but as part of a larger story about the people and times that produced them. As a result, Fiori said, curators aim to provide supplementary information that helps visitors understand the tales these artifacts can tell.

"It's not that the things themselves aren't beautiful," Fiori said. "It's just that you need more context, more data, to understand history exhibits."

The gallery wing and entrance are part of a $30 million expansion launched in 1997 to accommodate the society's growth. Earlier phases involved renovation of older buildings owned or acquired by the society, which now controls the entire city block bounded by Howard, Centre and Monument streets and Park Avenue, plus other properties. The new buildings add 40,000 square feet of space and represent the first all-new structures to rise on the campus in 20 years.

As designed by Ziger/Snead Architects of Baltimore, with Steve Ziger as principal in charge, the additions achieve three goals: They provide museum-quality spaces in which the society can display its holdings in the proper context. They put the society itself in a different context, providing a more contemporary image than before. And they reorganize the campus, strengthening its divisions and making its contents more accessible than ever.

The old layout interspersed public galleries and library rooms with educational and administrative areas that were off limits to the general public - a confusing arrangement.

The architects' solution was to pull all of the exhibit space out of the older buildings on the north end of campus and create a new building for exhibits on the south side, where the former Greyhound bus garage already had been converted to exhibit space.

That decision allowed the society to build a first-rate museum for permanent and changing exhibits, while freeing up space in the older buildings along Monument Street for a library expansion.

To provide access to both the consolidated exhibit spaces and expanded library - and maintain a sense of balance on campus - the architects also created a new entrance courtyard between the two, facing Park Avenue. Designed by landscape architect Michael Vergason, the new courtyard serves as a main entrance and features a reflecting pool, London plane and ginkgo trees, and flowering annuals in colors of the Maryland flag. The old entrance at 201 W. Monument St. is now used mostly for school groups.

Located at midblock, the entry court divides the campus in half. The library frames its north side, and the three-story exhibit gallery frames its south side. To the west is the glass-clad entry building, called the Beard Pavilion. Set back from Park Avenue, it provides access to both the library and exhibit galleries.

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