`Baltimore' in lights not really necessary

ARCHITECTURE

Just say `no' to sign on Federal Hill

April 05, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Public officials are supposed to welcome ideas from "ordinary citizens."

Everyone benefits from suggestions for making a city better.

But it's hard to imagine how any official, elected or otherwise, could be anything but cautious about a proposal to erect a Hollywood-style sign on the side of Federal Hill, consisting of small lights and shrubbery in the shape of letters that spell B-A-L-T-I-M-O-R-E.

Some ideas, like plants, deserve to blossom. Others should be nipped in the bud. Unless this idea can be taken to a more sophisticated level, this is one instance where it would be better to "leaf" well enough alone.

The concept comes from George J. Kelch Jr., a retired salesman from Pasadena.

He isn't out to make a buck.

He doesn't want to see his name in lights.

He just wants to do something positive for his hometown, something that will bring glory to it.

He believes planting a sign on the north slope of Federal Hill is the way to do that. He envisions a $30,000-sign with letters that are about 12 feet high and 4 feet wide, covered in ivy. At night they would be illuminated with tiny white lights.

"It's the perfect incline," he said of Federal Hill, in an interview with Sun reporter June Arney. "It's like God created it for a sign."

But Kelch may find it difficult to get his concept accepted. Before the ivy can take root on this prime parcel, many different agencies and organizations would have to give their blessing to his idea. Here are a few reasons they may not:

It's unoriginal. A rendering of the sign makes it look like a cross between the Hollywood sign and the Ladew Topiary Gardens in Harford County. The idea of creating letters with landscaping is a twist on making them from wood or lights. But it's been done before.

It's uninspired. A few years ago landscape architects proposed regrading Rash Field just below Federal Hill to create the outline of a crab. It was to have been covered, of course, with crab grass. That idea at least showed whimsy, an ability to laugh about Baltimore, but it didn't fly. Kelch's letters are just boring. They would say, "Welcome to Baltimore, the city that can't think of anything clever."

It's superfluous. People looking at Federal Hill are either already in Baltimore or viewing aerial photos of Baltimore. They don't need a sign to tell them where they are. Baltimore has too many signs and billboards as it is.

It's impractical. The city just spent millions to stabilize Federal Hill after it showed signs of erosion and slumping. Groundskeepers have difficulty just keeping the grass mowed. If not kept free of trash, the shrubbery could become a magnet for rodents. If people start walking up the hill to the individual letters, it could trigger erosion. "Federal Hill has been reconstructed several times," said Kathleen Kotarba, executive director of Baltimore's Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation. "If anything is done, the city has to be certain the hill can literally support it."

It's tampering with history. Federal Hill is the only prehistoric land-feature left near the Inner Harbor. It's the only Maryland feature mentioned in Capt. John Smith's 17th-century writings about the upper Chesapeake Bay. In 1788, it was the site of a citywide party held to celebrate ratification of the U.S. Constitution - the event that gave Federal Hill its name. It was the scene of a Civil War encampment. From the 1700s to the present, it has been an unparalleled vantage point from which to view the city. To put letters where they weren't smacks of commercialization of a place that shouldn't be commercialized.

Because Federal Hill is part of a district listed on the National Register of Historic Places, any proposed changes would have to be reviewed by the city's Department of Recreation and Parks, the preservation commission, the Inner Harbor Task Force, the Maryland Historical Trust and a variety of community groups, among others. Some of Baltimore's design and planning experts don't think the plant-sign concept even merits scrutiny.

"It's not an idea worth pursuing," says M. Jay Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., which oversees downtown redevelopment "It's inappropriate on an historic landmark. Baltimore isn't Hollywood."

"It doesn't sound right to me," said graphic designer David Ashton. "Sure, it's a perfect location for a sign. But it's not perfect in that there's too much history. It's not reverent enough."

Federal Hill "is such an icon for Baltimore," said Mark Cameron, head of the Neighborhood Design Center and member of Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel. "From an aesthetic point of view, I don't think it's needed. I think it would lead to more visual clutter around the Inner Harbor."

"It's the front lawn for Baltimore, the green open space for the Inner Harbor," said Eric Holcomb, a city planner for historic preservation. "To cop something from Hollywood, it's tacky. They could spend their money in better ways."

Kelch's idea has support from one corner, though.

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