In a career spanning more than half a century, New York architect Hugh Hardy says he has never worked on an arts-related project like the one his office is designing in Maryland: Harford County's $60 million Center for the Arts.
What sets it apart, Hardy said, is the bucolic setting and the mixture of cultural spaces and other facilities that will be under one roof.
It's not just an arts center, he says. "It's a community center. It will always have a foundation in the arts. But it's a true community center."
Hardy and colleague Ariel Fausto, of H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, came Tuesday to the Maryland Golf and Country Club in Bel Air to unveil preliminary designs for the project to more than 100 business leaders and arts advocates.
The center is being planned for a parcel west of Route 24 and south of the Festival at Bel Air shopping center. The land was donated to the county by Maryland native Emily Bayless Graham, who died five years ago and stipulated in her will that the parcel be used to build a cultural center by 2018. She gave another 69 acres on the condition that it be used for passive recreation, in a total bequest valued at up to $17 million.
The county has been working with the nonprofit Center for the Visual and Performing Arts and Hardy's firm to develop plans for the arts center.
Hardy, 80, is a highly regarded theater designer whose past projects include the Lincoln Center Theater and the restoration of Radio City Music Hall, both in New York. He also guided the restoration of Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre.
Hardy and his firm were introduced to the Harford County group and county officials by Thomas McGrath, a New York-based attorney who served as Graham's guardian and is now trustee of the Emily Bayless Graham Charitable Trust. McGrath has insisted that whatever is built on the Graham property be designed by a first-rate team, and he is a strong admirer of Hardy and his work.
Hardy and Fausto unveiled plans for a building that can accommodate theater, dance, music, the visual and literary arts, and arts education. Features include a 1,200-seat theater, a 400-seat theater, a flexible "black box" theater, a museum of county history, art galleries, an education wing, rehearsal space, meeting and event space, and parking for 500 cars.
The fact that the land was donated to the county with the stipulation that it be used to create a cultural center also makes the project unusual, Hardy added.
"It really is quite something that someone gave all this land for the arts," he said. "I find that quite wonderful."
Sallee Kunkel Filkins, executive director of the Center for the Arts, and financial consultant Robert Corea, said Tuesday's presentation represented the culmination of more than eight years of work by their organization to create a home for the arts in Harford County.
They said there are dozens of arts groups looking for performing and exhibition space in the region, and more than 250,000 people live within an eight-mile radius of the site; 2.7 million people live within 50 miles.
"This is a vision for the future of the region," Filkins said. "The arts are already here. They just haven't had a place to come together. We have a great location. This center will be transformational for the arts community, the business community and the economics of the region."
In terms of arts facilities in Harford County at present, "we're not underserved," Corea said. "We're just not served, period."
Filkins said her group's goal is to open the center by 2018. Funds for construction are expected to come from a combination of county, state and private sources. Filkins said the renderings and scale model shown Tuesday will help fundraising efforts by showing what has been proposed and how it might enrich the lives of people in the region.
"This is a huge day," Filkins said of the unveiling. "People don't begin to 'get it' until they see renderings and a model. When you can see it in three dimensions, it becomes a vision for the future."
With the unveiling, "we think the level of excitement will increase dramatically," Corea said.
The planners said they want to create a center that is active day and night. To help generate revenue when no performances are under way, they explained, there will be spaces that can be rented out for meetings, banquets, and even weddings.
One of the challenges, Hardy said, has been to create a bustling community center and still retain a sense of the verdant surroundings.
In Harford County, "people have a sense that they live in a rural place," Hardy said. "It means a lot to people there. That's a wonderful taking-off point for creating a very special place."
Because the clients placed a high priority on integrating the building with the landscape, Harford's center will have "a completely different kind of indoor-outdoor relationship" than more urban facilities have, Hardy said. "It will make this center very different from any other."