The 19th-century mansion at 1 W. Mount Vernon Place that is part of the Walters Art Museum resembles a giant white wedding cake. The three-story home rises in visible layers, and the roofline is topped with frosting-like dollops of plaster.
Inside, the curved stairway designed by Charles A. Platt swirls giddily out into the foyer before drawing the eyes up, up, up in a spiral to the glowing green Tiffany skylight. The first floor in particular is “a confection,” as deputy museum director Eleanor Hughesputs it, of such architectural details as fluted pillars and Baccarat-style chandeliers. There’s even filigreed molding inside the door jambs — visible for just the fraction of a second it takes someone to walk through.
In short, the home formerly known as Hackerman House, which reopens to the public on Saturday following a four-year, $10.4 million renovation, is the real estate equivalent of pornography. Visitors likely will wander from room to room in pursuit of their wildest housing fantasies, seduced by tantalizing glimpses of, for example, a naked plaster panel that has been stripped of its brocade covering, and now nothing about the elegant terra-cotta surface framed by three-dimensional gray moldings is left to the imagination. So spectacular is this 1850 house that it may take gaping guests time to notice that it also contains paintings and sculptures.
That’s more than fine with Hughes, the project curator, and Walters director Julia Marciari-Alexander.
“This historic building,” Marciari-Alexander said, “is as much a work of art as anything in our collection.”
The renovation, which she says was completed on time and on budget, included some less glamorous updates — the climate control and fire suppression systems have received overhauls. Two smaller spaces, the former garden and carriage house, opened last fall after they were revamped to showcase the Asian art collection. Left untouched by the renovation were the museum's two other large buildings on Centre and Charles Streets. The architect who led the renovation was Thomas Liebel of the Baltimore firm of Marks Thomas.*
But it’s the restoration of the Greek revival mansion that the late philanthropist and businessman Willard Hackerman donated to the city of Baltimore in 1984 that will likely captivate most visitors.
The mansion will host rotating exhibits of artworks that can coexist with the limitations on temperature, light and humidity control imposed by their location inside a 168-year-old home. For its inaugural exhibit, the Walters is showcasing seven centuries of the museum’s international ceramics collection.
Museum-goers’ biggest disappointment may be that the historic entrance will mostly remain closed. Walking through the entrance of a grand home decked out with portico and pillars can feel as though the building itself has put on party clothes and is celebrating your visit. It’s easy to imagine retracing the steps of such former celebrity guests as Great Britain’s future King Edward VII, the entertainer Liberace and chef James Beard.
But Marciari-Alexander said that’s necessary to guarantee the atmospheric conditions inside remain constant.
“On very rare occasions,” she said, “we’ll be able to open these doors.”
Instead, guests enter either from inside the museum or from a small side door on North Charles Street leading to a flight of stairs ascending to the former conservatory at the house’s rear. But the museum staff has planned a “wow” moment for guests walking up those steps — a floor-to-ceiling glass case filled with colorful clay vessels that shimmer in the light.
Gone as well are the heavy draperies that formerly obscured the large, generous windows.
“We wanted to do a better job of connecting the museum to the Mount Vernon neighborhood and to the city of Baltimore,” Hughes said. “People inside the museum can look out, and people outside the museum can look in.”
Instead of curtains, the windows are now covered by black mesh fabric panels to protect the artworks. Though the effect is dark and shadowy and a bit like gazing through a window screen, visitors can now at least catch a glimpse of the nearby Washington Monument.
Several rooms have also reverted to their original functions, further reminding visitors of the building’s past as a private home. For example, the conservatory, where party guests once danced to the sounds of an orchestra hidden by potted palms, will remain a center for socializing with a coffee bar and cafe tables. In the former library, decorated with perhaps 50 elaborately carved miniature wooden busts of such figures as William Shakespeare and Ben Franklin, a selection of books is available to read.
The renovation also introduces museum-goers to the people who built, worked in and lived in 1 W. Mount Vernon Place. A new smartphone app provides information on such figures as Ernest Dreyer, the immigrant who painted the library frescoes, and Sybby Grant, the enslaved woman who cooked for the home’s original owners.
In contrasting with the architectural exuberance of the first floor, the second-floor bedrooms are far less adorned — as was typical of the private areas of 19th-century homes. Such modern touches as track lighting were installed when the home reopened as a museum in 1991, and today those rooms are the home’s main art galleries.
The works on view include two extravagantly beautiful white stone sculptures created by contemporary Japanese artists. The angel wings of Fujikasa Satoko’s “Seraphim” from 2015 evoke swirls of whipped cream, while Fujino Sachiko “Petal” from 2010 is all softly undulating ivory folds.
The second floor also contains an art-making studio for kids and grown-ups stocked with such dry materials as pencils, pipe cleaners and chalk. For inspiration, visitors can study artworks that either are on display in the studio itself or that are mere steps away.
As Marciari-Alexander put it: “This is your museum and also your house. We want you to make it yours.”
The Walters Art Museum is holding a block party from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, June 16 that will include live music, food trucks, games, activities such as plein air painting and mosaic tile crafting and ceramic-making demonstrations. Free. Call 410-547-9000 or go to thewalters.org/event/1wmvp-opening.
*This story has been updated to include the name of the architect and firm in charge of the renovation.