Annapolis has long had what it takes to be a great sailing capital -- with one glaring exception.
Its harbor is beautiful. Its residents are welcoming. Services and amenities for boaters are first-rate.
But the home of the city's oldest and best-known sailing organization, the Annapolis Yacht Club, has never seemed right for its setting or its sponsors.
A boxy modern building on the edge of a quaint historic district, it combined the heaviness of an office building with the %o blandness of a retail center. Its overhanging roof gave it a strange, pagoda-like quality that made it seem all the more alien -- like some discarded pavilion from the 1964 World's Fair. In recent years it had begun to age poorly, too -- lessening its appropriateness as a symbol for such a history-steeped organization.
This architectural weak spot has been rectified in time for the prestigious Whitbread Round the World Race, which is coming to Annapolis and Baltimore in April 1998.
The yacht club has just completed a $2 million renovation that left the building looking better than ever -- warmer, richer, more human scaled. After years of sending mixed signals, it finally looks like the home of a prestigious yacht club.
The three-level building at 1 Compromise St. is actually the third structure erected by the yacht club, which was started by canoeists in 1883 and called the Severn Boat Club.
The first clubhouse was a utilitarian shed built around 1885 on an oyster pile at the foot of Duke of Gloucester Street. The second was a larger but still modest wooden clubhouse.
The present building, a poured-in-place concrete structure on wood pilings, is the largest of the three. It contains an informal lounge and eating area, kitchen and locker rooms on the lower deck; offices, a card room and the main lounge on the middle deck; and the formal dining room, another kitchen and board room on the upper deck.
When it opened in 1962, the building was one of the first works of modern architecture on the Annapolis shoreline. That was a period when modernism was just beginning to gain widespread visibility in Maryland -- and much of the nation. The historic preservation movement was still in its infancy.
The original architects for the yacht club, Earl S. Harder and Robert Fryer, appear to have been influenced strongly by the work of Minoru Yamasaki, lead architect of New York's World Trade Center. The spaces they created inside the building were more than satisfactory for the yacht club's needs. But the "Polynesian pavilion" look of the exterior, while adventurous for its time, couldn't have been more out of step with historic Annapolis.
The job of transforming the yacht club fell to two architects: Fred Fishback of Fishback Associates in Annapolis, the architect of record, and Joseph Boggs of AI/Boggs in Washington, the design consultant. Both are Annapolis residents and yacht club members, intimately familiar with the building.
As the two architects explain it, the yacht club didn't specifically hire them to change the building's appearance. They say the project was prompted, as many are these days, by the management's desire to bring the building into compliance with the latest fire and life safety codes, upgrade the mechanical systems and catch up on deferred maintenance.
Some of the desired improvements would have led to exterior changes in any case, including the two exterior stairs needed for fire safety, and a glass elevator that would make all levels accessible to the disabled. The managers also wanted to add a covered entrance, a fireplace and a larger deck off the second-level lounge.
The charge to add so many different features led the architects ** to rethink the appearance of the entire building.
"There was a general feeling that it was tired," Mr. Boggs said of the exterior. "It was more than 30 years old. It looked like it could have come out of Kuala Lumpur, 1965. It had nothing to do with the East Coast."
Annapolis was ready for a different look, Mr. Fishback agreed.
Because the building is on Spa Creek -- and is built in large part over water -- it was subject to the state's "critical areas" laws. That meant the designers could not change the bulk or height of the building or expand its footprint significantly.
In effect, they had to make their improvements without covering any more of the site. Yet because the setting was so prominent, whatever they did would be watched closely.
"It was a high-risk piece," Mr. Boggs said. "There was no way to hide from this. It's one of the first buildings you see on the waterfront. With the Whitbread race coming here, it's going to get a lot of attention."
The architects' solution was to rethink each element of the building in terms of both its function and appearance.
Then they launched a series of changes, weaving new forms and textures and colors out of the old. Some of the changes are rather subtle, but the total effect is quite strong.
The biggest change involved the lines of the building. Both Mr. Fishback and Mr. Boggs said they believed the original architects put too much emphasis on verticality, with the heavy board and batten siding and thick mullions on every window. The building also had white panels that were "too checkerboardy" and needed to be downplayed, Mr. Boggs said.
The designers counteracted the verticality by introducing horizontal bands of beaded siding -- a material common in Annapolis. The cedar siding helped anchor the building to the ground while obscuring the checkerboard look.
With the new "skin" selected, the designers treated the fire stairs and elevator as appendages to the building, positioning them in an asymmetrical fashion to break up the regularity of the facades. They also replaced the old windows with new ones that have a darker tint, and added a new entrance canopy that continued the horizontal thrust.
Another key change involved the roof, which was previously flat and white and thin as a wafer. The architects kept the deep overhang, which shaded the rooms inside like a wide-brimmed hat.
Mure sculptural roof
But because they had to install new mechanical equipment atop the building, they took advantage of that change to create a more sculptural roof, with a gentle pitch and a crisply louvered penthouse. They specified a standing seam copper surface -- another familiar "Annapolis material" -- to establish a visual connection between the yacht club and its neighbors.
"We wanted something that related well to the residences across the street and at the same time projected a scale that's larger than a house," Mr. Boggs explained.
The key was treating the yacht club as a "transitional building between land and water, between work and play," Mr. Fishback said. "The concept is that it's a building of the land and of the sea."
While using indigenous materials to make the building "of the land," the architects introduced nautical references to help make it "of the sea."
The fire stairs were designed to look like gangplanks, with rigging reminiscent of life lines on a boat. Ship-like railings, made of a mirrored-finish stainless steel that sparkles in the sun, enclosed the outdoor decks. A palette of earth-tone colors -- grays and browns -- was used to warm up the building and pull it together visually.
By following this strategy, the architects accomplished the most difficult of feats: Without changing the building's bulk or height, they improved the way it looks and works.
As constructed by Gardiner & Gardiner, a Crofton-based general contractor, the yacht club is less stylized, less assertive, less monolithic. Its new look is calmer, more residential in scale, more in keeping with the local vernacular. It's also more recessive -- a backdrop for the boats and people all around rather than a foreground building that shouts for attention.
This is clearly not the last physical improvement that will be completed in Annapolis in time for the Whitbread Race. Main Street is being rebuilt, and the city council has plans to revamp City Dock as well. Any effort to open more of the water's edge to public access would be a plus.
The transformation is significant not only because of what it does for the yacht club and its members, but because of what it shows about the way newer buildings can be made to fit comfortably within a historic setting.
By taking cues from the harbor and the nature of the project, Mr. Fishback and Mr. Boggs strengthed the building's identity and forged a closer link with its surroundings. As a result of their sensitive approach, it's a fitting symbol of the yacht club -- and Annapolis itself.