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CRITIC'S CORNER -- ARCHITECTURE

New Fort McHenry visitor center is something to sing about

September 10, 2007|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Besides being known as the birthplace of the national anthem, Baltimore's Fort McHenry is considered one of the finest examples of fort design in North America.

In 1939, it was designated a national monument and historic shrine -- the only fort in the country to have that double distinction.

Now it appears the fort finally may get a visitor center worthy of the historic site it promotes.

Drawings unveiled last week by the architect GWWO Inc. of Baltimore indicate that the $14 million visitor center will be a vast improvement over the nondescript brick box that has served as front door to the fort since the 1960s.

The exterior will make an architectural statement about the place that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner," with walls that curve outward like a flag unfurled and a sloping roofline that draws attention to the fort itself.

Inside will be a multisensory theater presenting an "immersive experience" that will convey the story of the 1814 Battle of Baltimore, the bombarding of the star-shaped fort, and what led Key to write his poem.

The combination will help give visitors a greater understanding of what they'll see when they tour the fort. It's also designed to accommodate many more people than the current facility, which was inadequate from the day it opened.

According to park superintendent Gay Vietzke, the existing structure was built at a time when the National Park Service wanted visitor centers to be relatively neutral architecturally and similar to each other, no matter where they were.

Now, she said, the park service is more willing to build site-specific visitor centers, with interpretive exhibits, interactive displays and expressive forms.

GWWO, which has become a national specialist in the design of visitor centers for cultural institutions and other attractions, took advantage of this change in philosophy and designed a building full of symbolism inspired by "The Star-Spangled Banner."

According to GWWO president Alan Reed, two curving walls that enclose the center were designed to invoke meanings associated with the flag's stripes. A curving brick wall, he said, is intended to stand for characteristics associated with the red stripes on the flag -- strength, hardiness and valor. A more delicate copper wall is intended to express characteristics associated with the white stripes -- innocence and purity.

The upward slope of the brick wall is meant to direct the visitor's eye toward the flag that flies above the fort, creating a visual link between the fort and the visitor center.

At least one part of the visitor experience will be the same as it is now.

In the current exhibit, a film ends and curtains in the darkened theater open to reveal a window featuring a view of the fort and flag flying overhead -- a reminder that the American flag still flew over Fort McHenry after the British invasion. The new presentation will be more sophisticated technologically, but the show will still end with curtains opening to reveal a large window featuring the same unob- structed view of the fort and flag.

In designing a visitor center that makes more of an architectural statement than the current building does, the designers are taking a risk that the addition could upstage the attraction it was meant to promote.

But if any historic site in Baltimore is strong enough to hold its own against a visitor center with distinctive sculptural characteristics and symbolism, it's Fort McHenry.

ed.gunts@baltsun.com

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