Lewis Museum's design reflects African-American spirit

The five-story, $33 million Reginald F. Lewis Museum at 830 Pratt St. (scheduled to open June 25) is a boldly modern structure that makes good use of a tight but prominent site near Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

The design doesn't make literal references to African architecture. The architects used bold geometry and vibrant colors to indicate that it's a museum and that it's about Maryland and about diversity. They chose the colors of the state flag - red, white, black and yellow - which are also colors of skin. They imbued the building with layers of meaning that help tell the story of African-Americans in Maryland.

A water feature by the front entrance, for example, suggests the body of water that Africans crossed in slave ships to America. A red wall that slices through the building represents a sudden intervention in one's life; it can be read as joyous or traumatic. A wide stairway in the middle speaks to the act of ascension, in life as well as space. By working with architectural symbolism, the designers avoided resorting to the use of African cliches, yet they have created a building that's African-American in spirit.

More than two dozen cities now have or are planning African-American-themed cultural centers, making them the fastest growing subcategory of museums in the country.

With 82,000 square feet of space, Baltimore's Lewis Museum will be the second largest in the country, after the Detroit Museum of African American History. Because of its proximity to the Inner Harbor, it's expected to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.

Besides space for permanent and temporary exhibits, the Lewis Museum contains an auditorium, resource center, interactive learning center, oral history recording center, gift shop, cafe, classrooms, meeting rooms, offices and reception areas.

Above all, museum directors wanted the building to be a place where they could tell stories about African-Americans in Maryland - how they have overcome obstacles in their lives and what they have contributed to society. Unlike some museums that focus on a single event or individual, the Lewis Museum was intended to provide a broad overview of African-Americans in Maryland over 350 years.

The museum board had been offered the chance to take over the old Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center, part of the failed City Life Museums complex on President Street, but chose not to do so even though it likely would have saved money on construction.

"What came through very clearly [from focus groups] is that they did not want a hand-me-down facility," said museum board vice chairman Aris Allen Jr. "African-Americans are tired of left-over seconds. We wanted a brand-new museum."

- Edward Gunts

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