Gilman Hall will grow a new heart of glass

Space needed to transform main building on JHU campus was there all along


May 06, 2007|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

As the first major building completed when the Johns Hopkins University moved in the early 1900s from downtown to its current North Baltimore location, Gilman Hall was both the literal and figurative heart of campus.

Distinguished by a massive bell tower and portico, visible from many directions, it was the place where students and faculty spent most of their time. But after 92 years and numerous campus additions, that heart has grown weak.

This summer, Hopkins will embark on a three-year, $73 million restoration and modernization that promises to breathe new life into this academic landmark and reinforce its role as a cultural crossroads.

As part of the transformation, Gilman will get a new heart of its own -- a multipurpose meeting space intended to foster collaboration between students of different disciplines. The big design move here is that this new space will be created not as a glitzy or forced appendage but a resourceful reclamation of "found space" already in the building and never fully used.

A 60-foot by 60-foot light well in the center of Gilman Hall will be covered by a barrel-vaulted glass roof and turned into a three story landscaped atrium that will serve as a community gathering spot. Open around the clock, located next to well trodden destinations such as the Hutzler Undergraduate Library and Memorial Hall, it's likely to become the place to be on campus, where just about everyone can expect to run into everyone else.

Many colleges and universities have people-places such as this, either by design or accident. Often, it's the student union or the main quadrangle. Goucher College just broke ground for an "Athenaeum" that will be its all-purpose place of learning. The radical yet sensitive reshaping of Gilman Hall will make a powerful statement about the importance of the humanities at Hopkins, in the past and into the future.

Outgrew the space

Designed by Parker and Thomas and named for the university's first president, Daniel Coit Gilman, the four-level building was a national model for teaching and scholarship in the humanities from the day it opened in 1915. One of Baltimore's best examples of collegiate Georgian Revival architecture, it takes its cues from nearby Homewood House, the Georgian mansion visible from Charles Street near 34th Street. Its layout was based on a then-new design concept in which professors' offices, classrooms and library space were organized by academic discipline, putting students close to the information and instructors they needed most.

"The seminar system that is the bedrock of humanities study today was invented at Johns Hopkins," says university president William Brody. "Gilman Hall was designed specifically to foster that system, and it succeeded brilliantly. Now a renewed, reinvented Gilman Hall will support the study of the humanities in the century to come."

Gilman was constructed to contain classrooms and faculty offices for what is now called the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and anchors the university's upper quadrangle. But in recent years, as departments outgrew their space, books were moved to a central library, and academic work became more cross-disciplinary, Gilman stopped functioning as well.

Former library space couldn't easily be adapted to private offices or classrooms. A mazelike floor plan created confusing dead ends. Parts of the building were taken over by nonacademic uses, including a bank and campus bookstore. Additional space was converted to house non-circulating books and archival materials. Two departments moved out altogether, diluting the original concept.

Hopkins' leaders have long wanted to return Gilman to full use as a setting for the arts and sciences and to nurture interdisciplinary collaboration in general. Last fall's opening of a new bookstore on St. Paul Street, replacing the one in Gilman Hall, helped free up space to make that possible.

To determine exactly how to reconfigure Gilman Hall, Hopkins hired R.M. Kliment & Frances Halsband Architects of New York City. Principal in charge Frances Halsband said she was impressed with Gilman's organizational concepts. "I've never seen a building that so clearly suited its purpose," she said. "It was a beautiful diagram for a school."

Knowing that books were once at the heart of the building but were not coming back, Halsband said she wanted to identify what could take their place. She concluded that the best replacement would be people -- the students and faculty who bring the campus to life.

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