BMA exhibit to focus on its architect

John Pope designed D.C. structures, too

April 01, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

John Russell Pope, architect of the Baltimore Museum of Art's elegant neoclassical building at 31st and Charles streets, was the leading proponent of classical-revival style of his era.

Opened in 1929, the BMA's first permanent home was also Pope's first museum commission, and it set the standard for many of the large public buildings he would create.

Pope went on to design some of Washington's most distinctive structures, including the National Gallery of Art, Constitution Hall, the Jefferson Memorial, the Temple of the Scottish Rite and the National Archives building. He also designed major wings for the Tate Britain Museum and the British Museum in London.

Pope's architectural legacy is the subject of a delightful small exhibition at the BMA that coincides with the 75th anniversary of the museum's 1929 building. John Russell Pope's Baltimore brings together architectural renderings and plans, photographs, paintings and models of ornamental sculpture that trace the detailed development of the artist's grand conception.

Guest curated by former Sun art critic John Dorsey, the show also honors the important role played by Baltimoreans such as Mary Frick Garrett Jacobs, who donated her important collection of Old Master paintings to the museum along with funds to construct a new wing to house them.

Pope, born in New York City in 1873, studied architecture at Columbia College before traveling to Rome and Paris to continue his studies. After working for the firms of McKim, Mead and White, and of Bruce Price, he set up his own office in New York in 1905.

Among his earliest projects was a 1901 commission for an addition to the Newport, R.I., home of Mary Frick Garrett Jacobs and her husband, Henry Barton Jacobs. In 1906, Pope worked on an addition to the Jacobs' Baltimore residence on Mount Vernon Place.

Mary Jacobs was one of the eight original founders of the BMA, incorporated in 1914, and during the 1920s Henry Jacobs served on its board of trustees.

The couple's influence probably played a significant role in Pope's getting the commission to design a permanent home for the institution in 1926 (it originally was housed in the Mount Vernon residence of Mary Elizabeth Garrett, sister-in-law to Mary Jacobs.

Pope began work on the project with an associate, the architect Howard Sill of Baltimore. But Sill died soon after receiving the commission, and Pope took over responsibility for the building's planning and construction.

His final design called for a structure of restrained elegance, with minimal decoration to distract from its clean, classical lines. Inspired by ancient Greek and Roman architecture, the monumental scale of the building embodied the period's romantic idea of the museum as a "temple of art."

Pope's austere 20th-century classicism represented a return to the neoclassicism that had been fashionable in American architecture from the end of the 18th century to about 1850, when the Victorian style, a hodgepodge of Gothic, rococo and Oriental influences, eclipsed it. The Columbia Exposition in Chicago in 1893 reintroduced the classical revival style, and Pope became its leading architect during the first four decades of the century that followed.

In addition to his large public commissions, Pope designed several private residences in Baltimore, including the stately James Swan Frick House owned by Mary Jacobs' brother that was based on an 18th-century design by British architect Robert Adam.

Toward the end of his life, Pope's reputation waned as modernism gained in popularity. He died in 1937, shortly after finishing the design of Washington's National Gallery of Art, which was completed in 1941. But in recent years his reputation has been revived by a new generation of postmodernist architects who found inspiration in his innovative use of a perennially attractive historical style.

This exhibition is an excellent introduction to Pope's achievement and his architectural legacy to Baltimore and the nation.

The exhibit runs through Aug. 1. The museum is at 10 Art Museum Drive. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Admission is $5-$7. Call 410-396-7100.

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