Bit by bit and room by room, the grand old house is beginning to reveal its secrets.
As Walters Art Museum staff members were preparing the Hackerman House for renovation, they began discovering tantalizing clues about the 166-year-old Greek Revival mansion and the people who once lived inside it.
For instance, who scraped the words "Pense a moi" — French for "think of me" — on a window? Was it a lovelorn adolescent, perhaps one of the children of Dr. John Hanson Thomas, who lived in the home from 1850 to 1892 — or was it their tutor? Were the words a sign of a broken heart, or merely an attempt to show off a newly acquired expertise in a foreign tongue?
"It was quite trendy in the 19th century to take your diamond ring and scratch a message onto glass," said Eleanor Hughes, the museum's deputy director for art and program. "We know that this room was once used as a bedroom. And we have confirmed that the Thomas children were being taught by a French governess. We're going to do research and try to find out more."
The $10.4 million renovation of One West Mount Vernon Place includes not just the Hackerman House but two small, attached spaces: a former garden converted into a gallery, and the carriage house. The carriage house and former garden will reopen in the fall of 2017, while the refurbished Hackerman House will be unveiled in the spring of 2018.
Museum directors worldwide increasingly are beginning to think of their buildings as being part of the museum's collections, not merely as blank canvases in which masterpieces are displayed. For instance, when the Baltimore Museum of Art spent two years and $7.9 million reinstalling the American wing, one of the goals was to reveal the neoclassical architecture of John Russell Pope's 1929 Roman temple-style design.
As David Park Curry, a former curator at the museum, said two years ago when the American wing reopened: "The biggest piece of art we own is this building."
Likewise, when the three-story palatial Hackerman House once again welcomes the public, visitors will find their attention directed not just to what's hanging on the walls, but to the beauty of those walls themselves.
In the past, Walters' director Julia Marciari-Alexander said, museum-goers have been so conditioned to focus on the objects on display that such architectural flourishes as intricate ceiling moldings or graceful windows opening out onto stunning views of Mount Vernon Place too often went unnoticed.
"We are approaching the refurbishment of Hackerman House as if the building itself were a work of art," she said.
The house is named after the late philanthropist and businessman Willard Hackerman, who donated it to the city in 1984. The Walters later won a competition to determine how the building would be used.
The area under renovation, which has been closed to visitors since July 1, 2014, represents about 14 percent of the museum's total 60,000-square-foot exhibition area, museum spokeswoman Mona Rock said.
Untouched are the museum's two other main buildings that open onto Centre and Charles Streets and that house the museum's collections of ancient, medieval, Baroque and Renaissance art.
Roughly half of the renovation, which also includes installing up-to-date climate-control and fire-suppression systems, will be paid for with public funds. An additional $1 million has been pledged by private donors. Ellen Bernard, chairwoman of the museum's board of trustees, said the Walters has just begun a campaign to raise the remaining $4 million.
After the renovation, visitors will no longer find the museum's Asian art collection in Hackerman House. These artworks will find a new home in the former garden (now known as the John and Berthe Ford Gallery) and in the carriage house.
Merely taking the sculptures, paintings and ceramics out of the Hackerman House was no easy feat.
For instance, one object slated for relocation was a six-foot tall stone statue of a Bodhisattva, or someone who is destined to become a Buddha. The statue weighs a ton. Literally. Yup — 2,000 pounds. It has been hanging around and smiling beatifically since it was carved in China in the late sixth or early seventh century, and Marciari-Alexander really, really didn't want the statue to be damaged or worse, smashed to bits, on her watch.
The Bodhisattva was too heavy to simply carry downstairs and out the front door. The only way to get it out of the second-floor gallery was the same way that it came in when it was installed in 1991.
On Sept. 10, a Saturday, museum staff wrapped the statue carefully, hoisted it up onto a crane, angled it out of a nearby window and lowered it — slowly, slowly — to the sidewalk on Charles Street below. As Marciari-Alexander watched, scenes of art world disasters flashed through her mind.
"I was pretty nervous," Marciari-Alexander said.
Luckily, the Bodhisattva made it safely to the ground with all its limbs intact and its smile still in place, and was put in storage.
As Marciari-Alexander explains it, Hackerman House never was an ideal location for most great works of art. The humidity, light and air quality required to preserve ancient objects are at odds with ideal conditions for protecting the wood, plaster and furnishings of a very old home.
"The five buildings that make up the Walters Art Museum are the largest and most complex artworks in our collection," she said. "We're going to be devoting more intellectual firepower to the buildings themselves."
Indeed, it's only after the artwork had been removed so that construction could start that Marciari-Alexander saw — really saw — the building for the first time.
The oval Tiffany glass skylight topping a staircase glows forest green and amber. The massive chandeliers are marvels of crystal and metalwork, whether they're authentic Baccarat or merely Baccarat-style. (Walters staff members won't know for certain until they can take the behemoths down and examine the stamp.)
And the library. There must be at least 50 carved busts of such figures as William Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri, Benjamin Franklin and Queen Elizabeth I, each about the size of a human palm and mounted vertically on the original mahogany paneling.
Once the heavy drapes were removed, it became possible to experience the Hackerman House not in isolation, but as part of the Mount Vernon neighborhood. Glance out of one window, and there it is — the gleaming white marble Washington Monument, just steps away.
"Rather than turning every room of the Hackerman House into a gallery," Marciari-Alexander said, "we're trying to find a different balance between museum and historic house and gallery space. We want to start thinking not just about what's inside the museum but outside it, about the spaces that shape the ways we come together as individuals."
Once the renovation is complete, Hackerman House's glass-filled former conservatory will be transformed into a coffee bar. A room on the second floor will become a studio where visitors can make their own works of art. There will be space to hold recitals and occasional parties.
Marciari-Alexander said that artworks that can coexist with the home's humidity and light levels will be spread throughout Hackerman House. Installations will change every few years, instead of being installed more or less permanently. The first exhibit will showcase the Walters' ceramics collection.
Museum-goers crafting their own flowerpots will be able to walk a few feet to examine a 19th-century vase enclosed in a glass cube. When possible, artworks will be displayed in the rooms in which they naturally would be used. For example, visitors to the home's former library can examine rare books from the museum's collection.
It was while preparing the library for renovation that workers stumbled upon another of the home's secrets. As they stripped off the greenish-gold brocade panels on the library's walls, they saw first a glimpse of terra cotta, and then a flash of stone. It seems that beneath the fabric were elegant plaster panels that were painted red-brown and framed by three-dimensional gray moldings.
"These panels have been covered up for more than 100 years," Marciari-Alexander said. "No one alive today has seen them. We think that our visitors will find a very different Hackerman House going forward."