If one could measure regret per square foot, the little structure built 16 years ago next to the Inner Harbor's iconic Constellation would be off the slip-up scales.
The paint had scarcely dried when condemnation began rolling in: The building is not only homely, critics groused, it covers up the very thing it's intended to promote.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find any architect's group that would give that an award," says Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee. "It does not provide the attraction worthy of the dock that's a centerpiece of the Inner Harbor."
Though you might assume critics would be relieved that the city is considering plans to replace the building, the once-burned twice-shy set worries Baltimore could end up with something worse. Particularly because the Constellation's steward, feeling pressure to raise money for the ship, wants it even bigger this time.
With visitors to the 1854 sloop of war dwindling, and the Living Classrooms Foundation depending on ticket sales for the ship's upkeep, officials say it's critical that the new building draw more tourists to the Constellation.
"Whatever replaces what is there now really has to get that message across," says Chris Rowsom, executive director of the Constellation museum. "Seven million people walk back and forth on the promenade every year, coming right under the ship's bow. We have to let them know that they can visit this ship, and that it's fun."
The trouble is finding balance between city leaders who'd rather see nothing but the ship on the prominent Pier One, and ship advocates pushing for something more eye-catching.
"We've been told two things throughout this process," says Barbara Wilks, an architect for the project with W Architecture. "Make the building great from all sides - and make the building invisible."
The boxy two-story building has sat right against the Constellation since 1990. Plans to replace it with a lighter, glassier structure, set farther back from the ship, fizzled seven years ago.
But the replacement scheme is back on track now, with the Baltimore Development Corp. contributing design money, a $500,000 bond question poised for the November ballot, and a $2 million federal grant possible as long as the new building also serves as a water-taxi terminal.
The rough idea is to raze the 4,600-square-foot building and replace it with a 7,600-square- foot facility that would be part museum, part classroom space, and also house a gift shop, administrative offices and a restroom.
With a cost of about $5 million, Wilks' firm has developed four "embryonic" ideas - everything from one big building to three little ones.
The city's design review board and other stakeholders cast a critical eye on the options last week.
"It is not only a question of making the building glassier, it's is there really just too much building on this pier, no matter how glassy it is?" said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the BDC and a review panel member.
Panelist Gary Bowden, part of the design team for the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, questioned why the Constellation needs so much more museum space.
"How many things have been layered into the story and caused it to grow so much?" Bowden said, explaining that he just toured the Constellation exhibit. "The whole second floor seems stuffed with things that don't really need to be there.
"The ship seems to be the main message. Everything else is just background."
After assessing the four design options, some at the meeting wondered whether a building on the pier is really necessary.
Brodie suggested that nearby Harborplace could house some of what Living Classrooms wanted to put in the building. And Andy Frank, the BDC's vice president, recommended using a boat that could be docked elsewhere, or even turning to the city-owned space at the top of the waterfront World Trade Center building.
"Maybe we can work on financial solutions that don't involve a larger building," Frank said.
"There's always going to be pressure to expand, but there needs to be pressure on the other side to keep open space open."
When someone suggested everything might be able to fit onto the ship itself, Rowsom got frustrated.
"We could stand out on the gangplank and sell tickets like people sell peanuts," he said sarcastically.
"Why can't you just do all that on the ship? I suppose you could," he added later. "But as an artifact, it's just not something you should do."
Despite the controversy, Rowsom hopes people can agree on a design this summer. Then Living Classrooms could raise money later this year, start construction in 2007 and open the new museum in 2008.
One thing everyone already agrees on: They can't afford to make another mistake in such a key location for the city.
"This being where it is, it's under the magnifying glass," Rowsom says. "In the end, whatever goes there has to be right. It can't happen again."