Peabody opens its doors again to the city

Review: Music school ready to play cultural role in Mount Vernon

April 18, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

When he founded the educational institution that bears his name, Baltimore philanthropist George Peabody expressed a strong desire that it be a "common ground, where all may meet."

But with its front doors usually locked and all visitors directed to enter through a military-style guard shack, the Peabody Institute has seemed more like a fortress than a palace of the arts. With a $26.8 million restoration and modernization effort that's being unveiled this spring, Peabody's directors have changed course and embraced the founder's goals.

The three-year rebuilding campaign produced new rehearsal and performance halls, studios, practice rooms and other spaces designed to enhance Peabody's musical programs. Along with these improvements, Peabody eliminated many of the anti-urban features it put in place after the 1960s riots, including the daunting guard booth, and opened up the campus to the city beyond.

The most controversial aspect of the project is the decidedly Disneyesque architectural language employed, a sort of High Postmodernism in which classical elements such as cornices and brackets are reproduced with contemporary materials to evoke a past that never was. Some who see it may think of Goethe's description of architecture -- frozen music. To others, it will be more like frozen Muzak.

Stylistic expressions aside, the result of the construction is a well-integrated and welcoming architectural ensemble that marks a new era of openness for Peabody. With formal dedication ceremonies set for Saturday, the institute has officially ended its self-imposed exile from city life and, after years of turning its back, rejoined Baltimore's Mount Vernon cultural district.

'It was fortresslike'

The 147-year-old music conservatory was America's first and has long been regarded as one of its best. Known since 1977 as the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, it has about 600 full-time students, 2,000 preparatory students, 250 faculty members and 4,000 participants yearly in its popular Elderhostel program.

The campus consists of five interconnected buildings that occupy the block bounded by Mount Vernon Place (Monument Street), Washington Place (Charles Street), St. Paul and Centre streets, plus a row that includes the Peabody Inn and Schapiro House. Together, they draw 40,000 visitors a year for recitals, concerts and other events.

"The problem was that Peabody was a place ... where the public felt unwelcome by virtue of the architecture," said Director Robert Sirota. "It was fortresslike. We had to open it up."

To coordinate the transformation, Peabody hired Quinn Evans Architects of Washington, D.C., and Ann Arbor, Mich. Michael Quinn was the principal in charge, with Carl Elefante as project manager and Alyson Steele as project architect.

The architects' boldest moves were the re-establishment of Peabody's original main entrance on Mount Vernon Place as its front door, replacing the guard shack on Washington Place, and creation of a "grand arcade" that now serves as the primary circulation spine on campus.

The key to making these improvements work was the creative reuse of a narrow slot of space that was in the center of Peabody's oldest building but had been overlooked for more than a century.

The Italianate structure by Edmund Lind appears to have been built all at once but actually was designed and erected in two phases. One East Mount Vernon Place, which contains the 600-seat Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall, opened in 1866. The George Peabody Library, at 17 E. Mount Vernon Place, opened in 1878. The concert hall and library were joined by a common marble facade along Mount Vernon Place but separated by a 22-foot-wide light well.

Before the renovation, the entrance at 17 E. Mount Vernon Place led to a small lobby. By breaking through the back wall of that lobby, the architects realized, they could provide access to the light well between the concert hall and library. They proposed that this leftover space be enclosed and transformed to an interior arcade that could serve as a multilevel "commons" for Peabody.

This was an ingenious way to reorganize circulation because the arcade lines up almost perfectly with the entrance at No. 17, has just the right width for a new north-south axis on campus, and is an ideal location to bring people in from Mount Vernon Place.

By adding a glass ceiling and cascading stairway, Quinn Evans converted the previously unused area into a distinct public space -- Peabody's indoor "main street," complete with a visitors center and box office. With two elevators supplementing the grand stair, the arcade provides barrier-free access to every level, making it a true crossroads for Peabody.

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