Reviving a pearl of a sculpture garden

critical eye

November 16, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,

Baltimoreans have so many public treasures that are on the verge of being lost that we don't always stop and marvel when a cultural resource is actually saved.

That's the case with Pearlstone Park, a sculpture park near the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall that represents one of the most significant works of environmental art by an acclaimed New York sculptor, Scott Burton. For most of the past two decades, this park was so poorly maintained that visitors couldn't appreciate it, if they ever came to see it at all.

This fall, with little fanfare, it has been restored to the point where visitors can once again see what the artist designed and use it the way he intended. It turns out to be a remarkably sensitive combination of art and landscape in the heart of Baltimore's cultural district, next to the Maryland Institute College of Art campus.

"This park, in its first 20 years, was never fully appreciated," said college president Fred Lazarus, who led the $240,000 restoration effort. "For MICA to have this piece of Scott's on the southern edge of campus is a real luxury. The more we can get the community to understand that it's a work of art, the better off we'll be."

Pearlstone Park is a 2-acre, city-owned sculpture garden on the north side of Preston Street between Cathedral and Howard. It was one of the first major public spaces created by Burton, an artist known for breaking down the boundaries between furniture, art and urban design. After the Baltimore commission, Burton went on to create large-scale spaces in New York, Toronto and other cities, before he died of complications from AIDS in 1989. But it was Baltimore's park in many ways that gave Burton his start working in the public realm. When he died at age 50, at the peak of his career, Baltimore had one of the few large scale projects he ever completed.

The park was created at a cost of $500,000 in 1985 as an adjunct to the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, which opened one block south in 1982. One of the concert hall's flaws is that it was completed with virtually no immediate landscaping. Pearlstone Park was created largely to make up for that shortcoming. A grandson of Meyerhoff, Richard Pearlstone, donated funds to build the park in honor of his father (and Meyerhoff's son-in-law), developer Jack Pearlstone.

At the time, the Baltimore Museum of Art was organizing the first major U.S. exhibition about Burton, an Alabama native who was drawing international attention for creating "functional sculpture" that could be used as furniture. Examples included a Queen Anne-style armchair cast in bronze, a chaise lounge made of polished granite and "rock chairs" cut from boulders. The exhibit's curator, Brenda Richardson, suggested that Burton would be an ideal artist to work on a park in Baltimore's cultural district, and Pearlstone agreed.

Burton was different from many sculptors active in the 1980s because he wasn't content to create "plop art" - works that seemed dropped from the sky, with little regard for context. He regarded the public realm as his canvas. He sought to create site-specific, user-friendly pieces that reflected their surroundings and were seamless with the fabric of the city.

Designed with landscape architect James Reed Fulton and architect Robert Goldman, Pearlstone Park consists of green spaces, curved and straight pathways, and 12 concrete sculptures that can be used as benches, with accompanying light fixtures. The benches and lights are arranged in a gentle curve that follows the crest of a hill separating the concert hall from MICA's 1896 train station, restored for educational use. At Burton's insistence, there are no fences to close the park at night, as many parks have today. Burton called it "art for the non-art audience."

Pearlstone Park is memorable for the subtle way in which Burton's sculptural elements pay homage to their surroundings, particularly the Romanesque-Revival train station. The slender lamp posts with their glass light cubes echo the station's clock tower, with its four faces. Bricks on the lamp posts have the same color as the station's red tile roof. The concrete benches with their rounded edges are reminiscent of curved wooden train station benches. At night, the 12 lamps trace an arc in the sky that begins to encircle the illuminated clock tower like beads of a necklace. It's clear that Burton designed this tableau with the train station in mind, as if in tribute to it.

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