A FORMER WHISKEY barrel warehouse at the foot of Federal Hill in Baltimore would be converted to one of the city's most energy-efficient buildings, with a "saw-toothed" roofline containing solar heating panels and other energy-saving features, under a plan by local architects to convert it to a $5 million addition of the American Visionary Art Museum.
A preliminary design for the transformation was presented this month to Baltimore's Architectural Review Board by Cho, Wilks & Benn Architects.
It calls for the five-story brick structure at 840 Key Highway to be recycled to contain a high-ceilinged exhibit space at street level and a conference space above called the Center for Visionary Thought and Creative Social Responsibility.
As part of the renovation, the architects proposed to preserve the brick warehouse but cut away parts of it to suit the uses inside. They want to open up the center of the warehouse's east wall at street level, for example, to mark an entrance and let light into the exhibition space.
The most dramatic change would come at the top, where the architects proposed replacing the building's roof with a new "modified saw tooth" truss system that would be fitted with photovoltaic panels for solar energy and north-facing clerestory windows that would let natural light in during the day. Also built on the roof would be a separate water heating system that would use sunlight to heat the water in the building.
The city owns the vacant warehouse and last year selected the American Visionary Art Museum to redevelop it as an extension of its existing building at 800 Key Highway.
Museum founder and director Rebecca Hoffberger asked the architects to renovate the warehouse in a way that makes it an example of "environmentally conscious" design. She told the design panel members that it takes 100 patrons a day to pay the museum's utility bills, and she wants the addition to be designed so energy costs are as low as possible.
Project architect Karen Lemmert, who worked with principal-in-charge Barbara Wilks, said the design team is also trying to make the conference area "light and airy," while leaving the lower-level exhibit space more industrial in character. The lower space will retain some of the heavy timber framing that is inside it now and will be minimally air conditioned, she said.
Several of the Architectural Review Board members questioned whether the proposed look of the addition would be in keeping with the first phase, which has curving walls that draw visitors in and help define the galleries.
"I think it's a wonderful museum, and I think the building [south of it] is a great opportunity to continue the feel of what's there," said panel member George Notter. But "there's no relationship between what you're doing and the old" building, he said. "I'm very uncomfortable with the image of seaside condominiums that have no relation to the brick building."
Amy Weinstein, another panel member, said she thought the design should do more to express the "visionary" nature of the museum, which presents art by self-taught individuals who work outside the mainstream.
"I don't think visionary is having fixed roof slopes for solar panels," Weinstein told the development team. "To be visionary is to look to the future, not to go back to old roof structures that have fixed panels because they need daylight. What are you bringing with you to the future?"
Hoffberger responded that she didn't ask the architects to be "visionary." She said she would be happy to have a functional and cost-efficient building that provides a suitable backdrop for the art and people inside.
"I don't think you can play at being visionary because it will always come across as false," Hoffberger said. "The beauty of visionary art is that you don't try to be visionary."
Pub Date: 6/25/98