Function Junction

Sensitive to the history of Mount Royal Station and the needs of sculptors-in-training, renovators save -- but hide -- glorious details.

August 18, 2005|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Baltimore's Mount Royal train station hasn't served a passenger since 1961, when the B and O Railroad ceased using it as a commuter terminal.

But for a brief period this summer, the building's interior looked much the way it did before rail service stopped, with high ceilings above the former baggage area, large windows on the east side and a brick fireplace in the middle of the old waiting room.

Now the interior has been partially covered up again as the building's owner, the Maryland Institute College of Art, prepares to reopen it this month as a place to make sculpture and other three-dimensional forms of art.

But the architects and builders have left plenty of clues about the building's railroading heritage, from an outside wall that's now part of the main inside corridor to a stone medallion that will be exposed on a gallery floor. Other original details have been left in place below the surface, ready to be uncovered again if the building's use changes again.

This highly sensitive approach is the sign of a new sophistication about preserving historic buildings when they get new uses.

"It's called reversibility," said architect David Wright of GWWO, the local design firm guiding the $6.3 million renovation.

"It really is one of the basic dictates of historic preservation: If you're going to change something, allow it to be reversible if you can," Wright said. "If you put something in, put in something that can come out in the future. Whatever you do, try the best you can to let it be reversible."

Marked by a 150-foot-tall clock tower, Mount Royal Station is one of Baltimore's best known landmarks, a centerpiece of the Mount Royal cultural district.

Built in 1896 in a Romanesque style with elements of Renaissance Revival, it was the last of numerous train stations designed for the B&O Railroad by the noted firm of Baldwin and Pennington. Long-distance rail service ceased in 1958, and commuter service to Washington ended in 1961. Freight trains still pass underneath the adjacent train shed.

Three renovations

This is the third renovation to the building at Cathedral Street and Mount Royal Avenue since the Maryland Institute acquired it in 1964 as an extension of its midtown campus.

In the first renovation, the college inserted artist studios, an auditorium, library and gallery space in the restored shell. The work received national attention as one of the first cases in which a historic building was adapted for a new use. Anthropologist Margaret Mead hailed it as "perhaps the most magnificent example in the Western World of something being made into something else."

In 1985, the adjoining train shed was restored and art studios were added.

This time the college is making the building even more of a studio center exclusively for the creation of sculpture and other three-dimensional works, from fiber to installation art. The auditorium and large Decker Gallery have been removed to make room for student work space.

The college installed new heating, ventilation and electrical systems. To do so, crews had to remove partitions and open up the train station, exposing areas hidden since the 1960s. They uncovered wooden pilasters, doors and windows that had been boarded over to create a windowless gallery, the central fireplace and mosaic tile floors covered by auditorium seating.

These discoveries posed something of a problem. The exposed details were significant vestiges of the old train station and fine examples of late-1800s craftsmanship, but they weren't necessary for sculpture-making. In fact, if left exposed, there was a good chance that they would be damaged during the sculpture-making process.

"These are sculpture studios, where students are going to throw stuff around," said Wright, who worked with project architect Lisa Andrews. "They're down-and-dirty spaces in terms of what the students need. Rather than expose them to students, we decided to cover them up. Then maybe in the next incarnation, if someone wants to salvage the original details, they're there to be salvaged."

There was no desire to return the interior to the way it looked when it was a train station, because the use changed long ago, Wright explained.

"It hasn't been a train station since 1961," he said. "It wasn't our goal or our mission to make it a train station again. But we are trying to be respectful of the original fabric, to the extent that you can do it with a new use."

The designers turned the entrance of the old baggage area into the new main entrance to the building. They exposed sections of mosaic flooring and tin ceilings where they could. They're able to leave portions of the floor exposed, Wright said, because the mosaic tile is so durable.

The exterior

The architects are also restoring the exterior, which has always kept the look of a train station. The original porte-cochere has been reopened, along with doors and windows on the east side.

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