WHERE EAST MEETS WEST Hackerman House combines cultures of two hemispheres

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On the first floor of the newly restored Hackerman House in Mount Vernon is one of the most intriguing aspects of the Asian arts collection that the Walters Art Gallery has installed, a display of 18th and 19th century Chinese porcelains that were later "Westernized" by the addition of European ormolu, or gilt metal, mounts.

Although one can still see the purity of the porcelain underneath, the ormolu transforms the pieces to combinations of Eastern and Western sensibilities -- which made them more palatable to Western eyes at a time when Asian art was first introduced to this country.

That act of taking precious objects from the Far East and giving them a new Western setting can be seen as a metaphor for the $7 million effort to prepare the Thomas-Jencks-Gladding-Hackerman mansion, one of the finest town houses of the 19th century, for its new role.

After half a decade of planning and construction, the 22-room building at 1 W. Mount Vernon Place opens to the public today at 1:30 p.m. And just as one may debate whether the Western mounts actually improvethe Eastern artifacts, each visitor will have a chance to decide for himself or herself whether the recent changes made good use of the grand architectural artifact that Willard and Lillian Hackerman donated to Baltimore in 1984.

There is no question, however, that the house, like the porcelain with ormolu mounts, has come through the process in a dramatically transformed state: It is no longer the stately private residence it was for nearly 150 years, and some will consider that a loss for Baltimore. But in many ways it is something far better: a nationally significant museum that sums up, like nowhere else in the country, the surprisingly beautiful clash of the cultures that occurs when East meets West.

... In many ways, this project was even more challenging than the $6.1 million renovation of the 1904 Walters building that was completed three years ago. That project involved the restoration of a relatively large-scale structure designed for the display of art. Hackerman House, by contrast, was a private residence, never before open to the public. Its domestic scale and elegant detailing made it far more delicate and unforgiving of mistakes, much like the porcelain on display inside.

To carry out this transformation, the Walters hired a design team headed by Grieves Associates (now Grieves, Worrall, Wright & O'Hatnick), the Baltimore firm responsible for the hugely successful restoration of the 1904 building.

Unlike the previous project, however, the design team, which included James R. Grieves, David G. Wright and Martha A. Jones, did not attempt to take the entire building back to one point in time, such as 1904. Guiding their strategy in this case was a decision by Walters officials not to create a traditional house museum, in which the architecture dominates and the art is displayed as part of the decor. Here, it is the art that predominates, with the house and its furnishings essentially providing a backdrop for it.

Before they could show off the art, however, the architects had to devise a way to lead visitors from the 1904 building across an alley and up to Hackerman House in the next block. To do so, they created a sequence of spaces that not only take visitors physically into the house but provide a conceptual transition in time and place from Renaissance Europe to the Far East.

The first phase of that transition is a bridge that spans the alley, linking the museum's Baroque gallery with a new octagonal pavilion on top of the mansion's former carriage house. Besides allowing visitors to glimpse their ultimate destination, this pavilion is the first indoor public space on Mount Vernon Place to provide a view of the square. Detailing and materials suggest that the space is an extension of the 1904 building, yet the tantalizing view provides a signal that this is also a gateway to a new experience.

Teased on by the view, visitors may take either stairs or an elevator one level down to the carriage house, whose second level has been converted to a gallery of Southeast Asian art. From there, visitors move into the former backyard of the mansion, which has been excavated to provide room for a 130-seat cafe served by a kitchen inside the first level of the carriage house. The skylit cafe is one of the more playful spaces in the project, with rich colors and stylized columns whose varied details echo the progression from the solidity of the '04 building to the more ornate Hackerman House.

From these transitional spaces visitors finally enter the house itself by taking an elevator or stairs to the first floor, which is furnished to suggest domestic interiors from the 1880s to 1900, when William and Henry Walters were assembling their collection at 5 W. Mount Vernon Place.

On the second floor, which had fewer architectural details to start with, objects are presented in a more neutral setting that evokes the Far East and allows visitors to make a geographical and chronological tour. Most walls are a soothing celadon green and the floors are covered in a material reminiscent of Japanese tatami. The third floor houses museum offices and is off limits to ++ the public.

Rooms on the two public floors are further distinguished by furnishings and art. One of the most alluring on the first floor is the Japanese Study, where the exuberance of the wall coverings and period furniture are surpassed only by the wide range of Japanese deocrative arts on display, including swords, ivories, metalwork and lacquers. In the Great China Room, one can't help but admire the attention to detail, including wall-to-wall carpeting whose medallions were designed to echo the rosettes in the ceiling. Though the furnishings and decorative details are at times quite elaborate, they never really overpower the art.

On the second level, one of the most memorable spaces is a former bathroom, which has been converted to house an early seventh century wood and lacquer seated Buddha from China. Dubbed the Buddha Bathroom, this room provides an ideal setting for what museum director Robert Bergman calls a "meditative moment," in which visitors can sit quietly and contemplate works of art.

In the front bedroom, a lion sculpture positioned in front of the east-facing window strikes the same stance as the equestrian statue of Lafayette visible just outside in Mount Vernon Square. Such fortuitous juxtapositions go a long way toward reinforcing what Hackerman House is all about -- the reception of the Eastern aesthetic into the West.

... Although the project is well thought out and the installation is at times exquisite, Hackerman House is not without its flaws, some too large to overlook.

The light gray and yellow color combination of the repainted exterior, while perhaps historically accurate, makes the building seem neither as warm nor as monumental as surrounding buildings on the square. The domed pavilion that links the gallery and the house, though it serves a noble purpose, is an unusually heavy object to put on the little carriage house and alien to the rest of the complex, as if it had flown over from Istanbul.

The leaning cafe roof and clunky triangular window that butt up against the Washington Place side of the carriage house represent still more design aberrations, as if the architects were so immersed in their interior spaces that no one took the time to look at the property from the outside.

The dark-tinted windows selected to protect the art inside have already drawn criticism for negatively affecting the look of the house, and rightly so. As much as one would like to believe they don't make a difference, they do. This is, after all, a museum, not a speculative office building. One would think an institution such the Walters, which is in the business of conservation and preservation, would have had enough respect for this landmark to find a better way to screen the windows.

It is also unfortunate that for security and climate-control reasons the house's impressive front entryway could not have been used as the front door of the museum.

Those design decisions hint at some of the other difficult issues that the Walters staff and consultants faced in converting the house to a public museum. The transformation of the backyard to a cafe, for example, was one of their more creative solutions. Designers also were quite successful in finding ways to insert new heating, air conditioning and security systems, among others, without disrupting the interior spaces.

Other positives include the restoration of the Tiffany dome above the central stair, the unobtrusive lighting throughout and the first-rate craftsmanship at every turn -- much of it coming from museum cabinetmakers Dena Picken and Wayne Johnston. A great deal of the success of the installation is due to Asian arts curator Hiram Woodward Jr., who has taken a not-so-easy story and told it in a full and satisfying way.

This list of pluses and minuses underscores the unwavering stance that the Grieves office took in transforming the house: In their zeal to create the perfect home for the arts collection, they had to choose between a number of options, some of which were not 100 percent protective of the integrity of the house itself. Given the museum's strict requirements, perhaps it would have been impossible for them to have been more protective.

Another mitigating factor is that the house had already been altered extensively by its successive owners, and represented an electic mix of styles. As a result, the architects made a conscious decision to create a setting that was ideal for the art, first and foremost. Even the exterior flaws are a tribute, in a sense, to their single-minded dedication to carrying out the museum's goals.

Whatever its civic presence, a museum succeeds or fails on the quality of its exhibit spaces, and in that regard, the Grieves job is more than a success. It is one of those rare achievements -- a sensitive, at times serendipitous, thoroughly masterly marriage of art and interior architecture, carried out so that each is enhanced by the other. It is the high level of care and sensitivity for the art that makes this project the architectural achievement of the year in Baltimore, and well worth the attention it is receiving.

About the museum. . .

Address: 1 W. Mount Vernon Place (entrance through 600 N. Charles St.).

Owner: The city of Baltimore.

Name: In honor of Lillian and Willard Hackerman, who donated the former residence to the city.

Cost of museum conversion: $7 million.

Original architects: Niernsee and Neilson, with later additions by Charles Platt.

Architects for museum conversion: Grieves Associates (now Grieves, Worrall, Wright & O'Hatnick Inc.), with James R. Grieves, David G. Wright and Martha A. Jones as chief designers.

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Grand opening: Today from 1:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., preceded by a noontime parade from Convention Center on Pratt Street, north on Charles to the museum.

Hours: Tuesdays to Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: Free today, but tickets, granting admittance at half-hour intervals, are required. They may be obtained on a first-come, first-served basis at a tent at the base of the Washington Monument beginning at noon. After today: $3 for adults, $2 for senior citizens and free of charge for students and visitors 18 and under. No admission charge on Wednesdays.

Cafe hours: 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily except Mondays.

Information: 547-9000.

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