Expanded center debuts Friday $151 million project to be unveiled with gala; open house is Sunday

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Far beneath the bustle of Pratt Street, the vast subterranean wonder -- a concrete wilderness big enough for nearly five football fields -- sits empty and silent, in waiting.

At last, three years after unearthing the first of 12,000 dump trucks full of dirt, the armies of construction workers have disappeared from the Baltimore Convention Center's newly expanded exhibit space.

Soon, the 185,000 square feet of space will buzz anew with great masses of humanity sharing common callings and avocations -- veterinarians and vacuum cleaner dealers, surgeons and square dancers, funeral directors and science fiction writers. From all over America and even abroad, they'll come by the thousands to sell and schmooze, to exchange trade secrets and dissect scientific research.

And they'll do it all 20 feet to 30 feet underground.

Thus, the design of the $151 million expansion -- more than twice the size and three times the cost of the original -- obscures from public view the most important space in one of the most expensive publicly financed projects ever in Baltimore: Seen from street level, the glass-dominated facades offer not so much as a hint of the existence of the new exhibit space.

Building down instead of up helped designers avoid the warehouse-like appearance that once defined convention centers and not so long ago, stigmatized them as among the least attractive of downtown public buildings.

"We were able to avoid that boxy look," said George Loschky, the expansion's lead architect, "by burying the box."

But as always, the Seattle architect said, practical needs preceded inspiration and innovation. Because of the gradual upward slope of Pratt Street, keeping existing and expanded exhibit space on one level, as huge conventions and trade shows demand, entailed going underground. There, new space connects with the existing 115,000 square feet of exhibit space.

Similarly, customer needs inspired the building's most distinctive feature -- an elaborate truss system resembling a series of

adjoining triangles, covered with wallboard and painted white, that dominate the building inside and out. Exhibitors abhor obstructions, so convention center staff insisted on virtually column-free new exhibit space. They got it. With the steel truss network dispersing the building's weight, only four columns between the floor and the 30-foot ceiling interrupt the view of the entire 185,000 square feet of new exhibit space.

Completion of the expansion comes at a crucial crossroads for the center, opening as cities nationwide expand convention space at a record pace to keep up with demands of the $83 billion-a-year meetings industry.

Without the additional space, convention bureau leaders have long argued, Baltimore would lose millions of dollars a year in business to competitors such as Philadelphia, which opened a new center with 440,000 square feet of exhibit space in 1993, and Washington, which plans a new center with nearly twice that amount. By comparison, Baltimore's expansion will increase total exhibit space to 300,000 square feet with completion of renovations to the original center in April, while the entire building will total 1.2 million square feet.

"When you realize what an incredibly competitive market this is, it's a matter of expanding or becoming obsolete," said Elissa Myers, vice president of the American Society of Association Executives.

The four-story expansion, linked to the three-story original on the exhibit floor and through connecting corridors on the third floor, complements, incorporates and builds on some of the key features of the original, Loschky says.

Outdoor terraces, a popular feature of the existing center, await just beyond the glass on the Conway, Howard and Pratt street sides. Some feature trees and built-in seating.

A registration area just above the Pratt Street entrance provides a dramatic greeting in an area as big as a football field that affords splendid views of the city, and the trusses appear almost as sculpture in the spacious corridors outside 50 new meeting rooms.

Topping it all off: a 36,000-square-foot ballroom, Maryland's largest, on another glass-encased level.

The open feel of the place is no accident. From the beginning, state, city and convention bureau leaders and designers wanted an addition with a strong sense of a uniquely Baltimore setting.

"Inside a lot of convention centers, you could be in any city and have no idea where you are," said Bruce Hoffman, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

"But when you're in this Convention Center, you'll know you're in Baltimore because you can see it everywhere with all that glass."

From his fifth-floor office across the street at the Camden Yards warehouse, Hoffman has closely watched the expansion as it gradually emerged from a hole in the ground. "I had to see it happening," he said. "I wanted to be able to look out and see it and know the work was getting done on schedule, every day."

It was and it did, on time, within budget (though a planned 475-seat theater had to be scrapped because of budget cuts and may be added later on the third floor).

Hoffman and others credit the two project managers -- Kim McCalla of the Stadium Authority and William F. Kearney Jr. of Laurel-based Gilbane Building Co. -- with keeping it all together in an undertaking requiring logistics that could test a military general.

Beginning most workdays before the sun rose, the team supervised some 700 construction workers from 35 separate subcon- tracting companies who worked through snowstorms and downpours, sub-zero days and blistering heat waves.

Demolition teams blew up walls, Festival Hall and part of the original center, which remained opened throughout most of the project. They took out a good chunk of Sharp Street, built beneath it, then replaced it; cars now travel a section of roadway directly above the loading docks.

Engineers devised a complex support system using soil and cement underpinnings to protect the 211-year-old Old Otterbein United Methodist Church, after workers dug a 25-deep hole just 12 feet from its vestibule. "From an engineering standpoint, if you just dug that hole without supports, you'd have a leaning church, Kearney said, "or a church inside a hole in the ground."

The 61,000 square feet of plate glass had to be flown in from Pilkington, England. Some 16,000 tons of structural steel trusses came from Lynchburg, Va. But the biggest truss, weighing in at 90 tons, would have collapsed quite a few bridges along the way. So that one had to be made at Bethlehem Steel and driven, slowly, by carefully chosen roads to the site -- a 2 1/2 -day journey -- before being hoisted into place by two cranes.

Now comes the real test.

The expansion debuts before a most important audience Friday night, when hundreds of invited meeting professionals from throughout the nation arrive for a gala and a weekend of wining and dining in the city. (Then Sunday, the center will open its doors to the public for a free open house from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.)

The addition to the Convention Center, which opened to rave reviews when the Sons of Italy christened it on an August day 17 years ago, not only reflects steady growth and accompanying demand for more space but much higher industry standards. Ballrooms, state-of-the-art sound systems, the capability to allow roomful of conventioneers to communicate on the Internet, fiber-optics hook-ups have become almost standard fare at centers large and small.

While scrambling to build bigger, better meeting places, convention centers nationwide also are devoting much more attention to service, particularly food service -- because their guests demand it. Informal reviews of a particular center, after all, travel fast and far in an industry where word of mouth still often ultimately can decide bookings.

Along with bigger conventions and trade shows than ever before, the Baltimore center will hold black-tie affairs galore in the new ballroom -- and formal dinners for as many as 15,000 at one sitting. The new kitchen alone is stocked with $1.5 million of stoves, ovens, roaster, smokers, broilers, steamers, where cooks will prepare $8 million worth of food a year.

Details make all the difference when you're putting on a show for 10,000 or more, shipping tons of exhibits on 18-wheelers, setting it all up just so in a day or two, then packing moving out as quickly. Now, the trucks can drive directly onto the exhibit floor.

Entrances on Charles Street and the median of Conway Street enable trucks to get in and out quickly without turning around, as they had to heretofore, and 20 new underground loading docks will no doubt be a welcome luxury on snowy February mornings.

Freight elevators can carry cars from the exhibit area to the fourth-floor ballroom with ease. A tunnel beneath the exhibit floor and electrical utility boxes every 30 feet may seem of little significance, until it comes time to set up hundreds of booths displaying the latest in thousands of computers and technological wonders.

This mammoth building, after all, serves as a gigantic staging area for the multitudes. At last, it's show time.

Pub Date: 9/03/96

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