Well-anchored design

Critical eye: Plans for the Sailing Hall of Fame, docking in Annapolis, balance the modern and the historic

January 04, 2009|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,ed.gunts@baltsun.com

To tack a boat, in sailing parlance, means to change direction abruptly, sometimes to avoid an obstacle or treacherous waters.

That's essentially what architect Joseph Boggs has done with his preliminary design for Maryland's newest museum, the $30 million National Sailing Hall of Fame, planned for the Annapolis waterfront.

By taking the unusual tack of placing the building at an angle to the street, Boggs has avoided the need to tear down a historically significant structure on the site, while giving the museum visual and physical access to the water's edge. In the process, he has been able to head off opposition from preservationists who could derail the project, while reinforcing the idea that the Hall of Fame will help celebrate Annapolis' maritime heritage.

"In sailing, you're tacking to avoid something or to change course," said Boggs, design principal for Boggs & Partners of Annapolis. "It was a natural metaphor for our design. It's a way of positioning the building so it makes more of a connection to the water."

With the approach he has taken, Boggs is also on his way to accomplishing a different sort of goal: showing that it's possible for an architect to design a successful "modern" building for a historic setting, a structure that is both compatible with its surroundings and reflective of its own time and mission. That, too, can require avoiding obstacles and following a course different from what might be expected. But it has the potential to pay off in a big way for a project such as this - and the city where it's located.

The National Sailing Hall of Fame will be a three-story, 20,000-square-foot interactive museum designed to highlight the "heroes and heritage" of American sailing, while preserving its artifacts and legacy. After considering cities such as Newport, R.I., and San Diego, the organization's leaders, including Honorary Advisory Committee chairman Walter Cronkite, chose Annapolis as the setting, solidifying its reputation as a sailing capital.

When it's open, the Hall of Fame is expected to draw upward of 150,000 visitors a year, which would make it one of Maryland's busiest attractions. It is still in the planning stages, so no opening date has been set.

The site is a state-owned parcel at the foot of Prince George Street on Annapolis City Dock, next to the Naval Academy. It's a prime waterfront setting, with an ever-changing array of sailboats just outside the front door. The biggest obstacle to construction has been the presence of a two-story wood-frame structure at 69 Prince George St. that dates from the late 1800s.

Known as the Capt. William H. Burtis House, it was built by a member of the Oyster Navy, a precursor to the Natural Resources Police, which patrolled the bay beginning about 1870 to keep the peace among quarreling oyster harvesters. The adjacent dock is where ferry boats and oyster boats once landed and the governor's yacht had a berth, before it was sold.

Those connections make the setting a vivid reminder of Annapolis' days as a working waterfront, but they also pose a problem for any group that wants to add a building to the mix. A state-commissioned feasibility study recommended that the Burtis house be moved or torn down, but local preservationists have said they don't want that to happen because of its historic significance. Finding a way to save the house and still add all the space needed for the Hall of Fame was just one of many challenges Boggs took on when he became the architect.

Another challenge was creating a building whose form captures the project's spirit. For many architects, building in a historic district can mean creating a structure that fits quietly with its surroundings and that can be appropriate for "infill" structures.

But the way Boggs saw it, this is one project that shouldn't fade into the background. From the start, he envisioned the Hall of Fame as a foreground building that can be a symbol not only for sailing but Annapolis itself. He regards the commission as an opportunity to create a landmark that can stand for Annapolis in the same way the Sydney Opera House stands for its city or the Arch represents St. Louis.

"Whether they like opera or not, people know the opera house is a symbol for Sydney," Boggs said. "That's what the Sailing Hall of Fame can be for Annapolis. It's a way to rebrand the city and the state, and give people another reason to visit."

Annapolis is well known as the state capital and home of the Naval Academy, Boggs added. "What the Hall of Fame can do is provide a new way of looking at its waterfront and sailing history."

At the same time, Boggs said, he wants to use the Burtis House to help tell the story of sailing in America. But how to do so much in a limited setting? Grappling with that issue is what led him to draw inspiration from the idea of tacking a sailboat.

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