Baltimore's newest museum won't officially open for several months, but it has already received its first visitors.

AIA Maryland, a statewide affiliate of the American Institute of Architects, became the first group to hold an event at Baltimore's Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture when more than 200 architects and their guests gathered for the group's annual meeting and awards banquet on Sept. 23.

Representatives from the Maryland General Assembly took a tour on Oct. 1, and the museum's own staff is expected to move in by early November.

These and other activities are signs that the $34 million, five-level museum is nearing completion and on track for a grand opening next spring.

"We're making wonderful progress," said Sandy Bellamy, the executive director.

"We just received a $1 million challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. We're working with Maryland Public Television on the audio-video segment of our permanent collection, and with the History Channel for our orientation video. We're looking at dates in the spring to hold a three-day grand opening celebration that will feature both national and local performers and help us welcome thousands from around the state and the region."

Rising at the northeast corner of Pratt and President streets, the 82,000-square-foot building will be the second-largest African-American museum in the country, after one in Detroit.

Designed to tell the story of African-Americans in Maryland, it will contain galleries for permanent and temporary exhibits, an interactive learning center, a 200-seat auditorium, an oral history recording and listening studio, classrooms, a gift shop, a cafe, administrative offices and storage areas. Its exterior features the four colors of Maryland's flag - ivory, gold, red and black.

The architectural team was a collaboration of RTKL Associates in Baltimore and the Freelon Group of Durham, N.C. Gallagher and Associates of Washington is the exhibit designer.

Although the exterior of the building is substantially complete, the museum can't open until the exhibits are fabricated and installed - a process that is expected to take up to six months.

Last month, the nonprofit group that's building the museum, the Maryland African American Museum Corp., selected EXPLUS Inc. of Dulles, Va., to fabricate the permanent exhibits starting this fall.

Case-making and wall-mounting will begin in December, and installation of artifacts is expected to begin in January, with completion by the spring. Installation of the first temporary exhibit will begin in March 2005.

According to Bellamy and Victoria Stinson, public-relations and marketing manager, the museum has received numerous requests from groups that want to hold dinners, receptions and other events in the building.

AIA Maryland got to hold its dinner in the building, Bellamy said, as a favor to museum lead architects Gary Bowden and Phil Freelon and Aris Allen, a museum board member.

But for the most part, she explained, the museum is holding off on accepting group reservations until after the building opens, because staffers don't want to schedule any events that might interfere with completion of the exhibits.

Affordable housing

Michael Pyatok, one of the leading designers of affordable housing in the United States will discuss the factors that contribute to quality design in a talk at 6 p.m. today in the Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery on the University of Maryland Baltimore County campus, 1000 Hilltop Circle, Catonsville.

Pyatok's talk - Affordable Housing in the U.S.: Who is Responsible for Good Design? - is sponsored by the university's Center for Art and Visual Culture and the Neighborhood Design Center. It's part of a series of talks and events scheduled as part of Architecture Week in Baltimore, running through Oct. 16. More information is available from AIA Baltimore at www.baltimorearchitectureweek.com.

City bond issues

Baltimore planning director Otis Rolley will discuss the bond issues that will be on the city ballot in the Nov. 2 election during a noontime forum on Wednesday in the Johns Hopkins University's Downtown Center, Charles and Fayette streets.

City voters are being asked to approve loans to support schools, museums and other cultural institutions, and other community-development initiatives. Brochures will be available at the forum detailing each bond provision. The forum is one in a weekly series presented by the Baltimore Architecture Foundation.