School for the Arts finds room to grow

ARCHITECTURE

Renovations to begin on recently acquired Graham House mansion

ArchitectureColumn

September 06, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

The historic mansion on Cathedral Street is dormant now, quiet and empty since its previous owner moved out months ago.

But soon it will be full of activity, as construction crews begin repairing plaster walls, buffing floors and upgrading the mechanical systems.

Then it will be filled with a different sort of activity, as high school students take over the still-grand spaces for classes and meetings.

The Baltimore School for the Arts will start work this fall on a $24 million expansion and modernization of its home at 712 Cathedral St.

A key to the project will be transformation of the adjacent three-story brownstone the city acquired at 704 Cathedral St., once home to such noted Baltimoreans as writer H. L. Mencken and investment banker Alexander Brown.

When construction is finished, the mansion will be restored and connected to the main building to provide much-needed space for the school's growing curriculum.

"We're so lucky to have this building," said director Leslie Shepard. "It will enable us to increase our student body, expand our programs, and stay in this neighborhood. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

The 1850 mansion, once known as the Graham House, is a key to the expansion strategy because it provides space to reorganize the school and accommodate programs that didn't exist when it opened in 1979, such as digital photography and video editing.

The architect, Cho Benn Holback + Associates, came up with a design "that's really going to work for our students and faculty," Shepard said. "We're thrilled with the way they translated our wish list into reality."

The first phase of the project involves tearing off a non-original rear addition of the Graham House and using the land underneath to build a three-story dance wing. That will free up space within the original school property to build a four-story addition.

Then crews will renovate parts of the old school, formerly the Alcazar Hotel, and restore the newly acquired mansion.

Part of the work involves enlarging the library and consolidating academic departments that have sprawled all over the building. Contractors also will address long-deferred maintenance issues, such as inadequate heating and cooling systems.

The expansion has been designed to accommodate 375 students in grades 9-12, up from the current enrollment of 318, and 800 students in after-school and weekend programs, up from 600.

The school has 93,000 square feet of space and will gain 29,000.

Besides the dance wing, the expanded school will feature rehearsal and teaching studios for music and theater; an additional keyboard lab; four new classrooms; two additional science labs; a new lecture hall; new space for physical education; and a video, audio and design lab for theater production.

The mansion was designed by Joseph Kemp and is considered one of the finest townhouses of its period in Baltimore.

The first owner was William H. Graham, son-in-law of financier George Brown, the second chairman of Alex. Brown & Sons.

The Brown family sold it in 1894, and it was converted to apartments by 1918. Mencken was a tenant in the 1930s. The city acquired it from Laurence Glass for $400,000, after initiating condemnation proceedings.

Because the school and mansion are part of the Mount Vernon historic district, the architects were not allowed to make major changes to the facades on Cathedral or Madison streets.

Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation gave them more leeway to create contemporary facades for the additions that face west, along Ploy Street.

A recent tour of the Graham House shows that it contains features that rival those in some of the grandest homes on Mount Vernon Place, including high ceilings, handsome woodwork and a sweeping central stair topped by an oblong cupola.

Project architect Rima Namek of Cho Benn Holback said the mansion is in fairly good condition structurally, although it has suffered some water damage and cracked plaster due to lack of maintenance.

She said the design team's goal has been to preserve the character of the spaces as much as possible, while making them usable for students and faculty.

Without major modifications, she and Shepard said, the rooms can be adapted to a variety of uses, including lounges, meeting rooms, music instruction rooms and faculty offices.

In recent months, thieves broke into the building several times and attempted to steal ornate stone fireplace mantels, mirrors and chandeliers. They didn't get any, but they broke a few while trying.

Shepard said the losses were covered by insurance and the breaks can be repaired.

She said the school now has round-the-clock security guards on the premises to prevent more break-ins.

The construction work will be completed in phases over the next three years, and the school will remain open.

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