Last June, when Michael Jones McKean stepped into the empty first floor of the long-closed Hutzler Brothers department store on a stretch of Howard Street once percolating with retail businesses, he sensed right away the possibilities for creating an art installation there.
The 40-year-old McKean quickly started work on a large-scale, mixed-media art project titled "The Ground" that, like the old store, has its own kind of departments, individual areas under one roof, all aimed at engaging the senses.
The installation, unveiled Saturday night, will remain on display until mid-May, presented in partnership with the telecommunications company AiNET, which owns the building, and The Contemporary, the nomadic museum that commissions site-specific art work
This is the first time the public has been welcomed through the front doors of the flagship Hutzler building, known as the "Palace," since it closed in 1989, 101 years after it arrived on the block.
"This is Hutzler's re-introduction to the world," said Brian Checco, AiNET's marketing supervisor. "We want to bring life to a building that has been dormant."
The art installation may only be the first step.
"AiNETS's long-term plan is to repurpose this space," Checco, 30, said. "We hope The Contemporary moves in permanently. All kinds of crazy ideas are being considered for the floors above [the exhibit], including Tokyo-style micro apartments. And we will offer free Wi-Fi in the district, setting up wireless access points on the outside of the building."
Meanwhile, "The Ground" provides an intriguing means of opening up Hutzler's ground floor.
"When I learned of the building's history, I was inspired by this site," McKean said. "A department store is a building that becomes a funnel for collecting objects from all around the world, and sending them back out into the world. That became an exciting pivot for thinking about the installation."
That people are back inside the Palace is welcome news to Albert Hutzler III, who is the great-grandson of one of the original Hutzler Brothers, David, and worked at the family store in senior management from 1965 to 1976.
"It's amazing to me that the grand lady is still there," said Hutzler, 74, who lives in Florida and has long been in the wealth management field. "I'm very interested in the fact that an art exhibit is going in there. I think it's fabulous. I remember the first floor at the Palace was a pretty big space with a high ceiling."
That space looks modest-sized now, and far from fancy. A few of the original white columns remain, but little else to recall its golden age. "The Ground" makes an impressive contrast to the plain surroundings.
The installation is a two-story structure with various-sized rooms and nooks on all sides, a building within a building; in a way, the installation evokes a kind of a multilevel store window display.
The separate spaces contain various sculptural items, including replicas of brains, human and animal; a clay-and-dirt, frieze-like depiction of a water birth; a diorama of a cave; busts modeled on those found in collections of local museums and a mannequin head that could have been at home on a hat counter at Hutzler's.
In the decades since shoppers navigated aisles of merchandise at the store, the building mostly sat idle (the city used portions for office space for a while). It joined such other fabled emporiums in the vicinity as Hochschild Kohn to form a ghostly reminder of Baltimore's downtown heyday.
But signs of fresh life have popped up since the "Palace" was acquired in 2014 along with the adjacent One Market Center by AiNET, a company that designs and operates Internet data centers. The 200,000-square-foot AiNET telecommunications hub has multiple tenants.
"Below us are massive cables containing thousands of fiber optics cables," Checco said. "The fiber runs from Ashburn in Virginia to New York City, and from there, under the ocean to Europe. People forget that the Internet is a physical thing."
That physicality makes "The Ground" seem all the more resonant to Ginevra Shay, artistic director of The Contemporary, the adventurous museum that commissioned the installation.
"The way Hutzler's had all these goods coming into the space and going out again is like the Internet," Shay, 29, said.
The Contemporary, which doesn't collect or display art in a gallery, commissions site-specific work. Last year, for example, a multimedia, interactive installation by New York artist Abigail DeVille filled each floor of the former Peale Museum.
"We like to shine a light on the past histories of buildings in Baltimore," Shay said.
"The Ground" is one of the last projects at The Contemporary launched during the eventful tenure of executive director Deana Haggag, who departs next month to head the Chicago-based arts organization United States Artists. The installation, presented in partnership with AiNET, received lead funding from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
McKean was born in Micronesia, grew up near Philadelphia and now lives in New York. A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, he has been featured at galleries throughout the country, as well as Canada, Europe and Israel. He's on the faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University.
"A lot of my work has to do with time and timescales," McKean said. "Coming [to Hutzler's] got me thinking about how it went from being a center of the city to an abandoned place, how the memories of it shift and change."
Running through "The Ground" are references to the origin of the planet and its inhabitants. Birth and re-birth is a recurring theme.
McKean describes the water-birth sculpture as a "super-psychedelic" scene, with women evoking 1960s hippies assisting in the process. Above that piece is a niche holding a stark sculpture of a human pelvis with a fetal skeleton attached, looking as if it were levitating.
Another compartment holds two rows of lifelike, unsettling heads made of silicone and other materials. The artist suggests they could be models of "members from some future cult."
McKean also fashioned busts based on actual art objects at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Art Musuem and other venues. It's his way to reflect on "how improbably all these heads from around the world somehow deposited themselves here in Baltimore."
Embedded in one of the side walls of the installation is a kind of vault holding minerals, seeds and other elements.
"This whole piece could be considered like an ark in some way, holding all of this natural history," McKean said.
The installation seems to bring the past, present and future together. The effect is all the greater inside a building with a past with happy and disheartening chapters; a suddenly livelier present; and a future that could be brighter.
"Michael's work provides an opportunity for a conversation about this space and this part of town," Shay said.
AiNET plans to propel that conversation with a public forum next month, "Future Cities: Baltimore," with panelists representing arts, technology, education and urban development.
"We're using Michael's incredible meditation on place, time and material as the inspiration for the conference," Checco said. "The space for this exhibit will not be turned over for commercial purposes. We want this to be a meaningful place for meaningful work. We are trying to be sensitive to the community, asking questions — what do you want to see this space used for? It's not just rich guys buying stuff and kicking everyone out."
Given other efforts to revitalize the neighborhood — theater groups and art galleries buying and renovating neglected buildings; proposals to revamp Lexington Market — the opening of even a portion of Hutzler's after so many decades looks all the more promising.
"Nobody wants to see a derelict space in a depressed area," Hutzler said. "Anything that can help the area would be great. Canton and Fells Point were somewhat derelict when I left town 30 years ago, and you know what they are today. All of us would love to see something similar happen to Howard Street. Maybe it could become the arts center of Maryland."
If you go
The installation is open to the public free of charge 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays, through May 19, at Hutzler Brothers Palace Building, 200 N. Howard St. For details, call The Contemporary at 443-388-8980, or go to contemporary.org.
The "Future Cities: Baltimore" panel discussion will take place at 5:30 p.m. March 15 in the Palace Building. Free admission.