Peabody entering an era of openness; Institute to reach out with cafe, more inviting entrance


An arched steel gate guards the entrance. Beside it looms a guard booth with video camera, electronic card scanner and emergency call box.

A passer-by might mistake this fortress-like compound at the center of Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood for a prison. But it's actually an incubator for some of the nation's most brilliant classical musicians.

Starting this month, the Peabody Institute plans to open itself up to the city and breathe fresh air into its cloistered image.

For the first time in its 142-year history, the institute has launched an economic development project to help jazz up its historic neighborhood. And the school will tear down its gates and build an airy new entrance to lure more patrons into its 800-seat concert hall.

On Sept. 25, the school plans to open Maestro's Cafe at 5 E. Centre St., featuring a coffee bar and store selling books, compact discs and sheet music. Next door, at 3 E. Centre St., will be a piano and keyboard store called Jordan Kitt's Piano Salon.

Administrators hope the cafe will become a hangout for musicians, not only drawing students off campus but also attracting artists from the suburbs and Washington to what is designed to be the best classical music store in the region, according to Robert Sirota, director of the school, a branch of the Johns Hopkins University.

Upstairs from the shops will be an Internet music business called Peabody Ventures. The businesses will occupy two of four formerly vacant buildings on Centre Street that the school bought for $185,000 in the past two years. The school has converted the other pair, at 7 and 9 E. Centre St., into offices for teachers and administrators.

Renovation of these buildings, which are more than a century old, represents the campus' first expansion since 1966, when the school built a three-story dormitory and cafeteria on the north side of Centre Street at St. Paul Street.

Over the next four years, the school plans to spend $10 million building a glass-roofed atrium at 17 E. Mount Vernon Place -- the Peabody library -- that will preserve the library's architecture and serve as a new entrance to the campus' central plaza, Sirota said.

This new front door will replace the gate on North Charles Street. The school will continue to post security guards at all entrances to check people's identification and keep criminals out. Crime in the neighborhood has fallen 24 percent over the past year, according to police.

A more appealing front

The new atrium will include a visitor center and a box office more accessible to the public than the current ticket booth, which is in a basement beneath 1 E. Mount Vernon Place.

By creating a more appealing front entrance, the school hopes to attract more people to its 700-plus annual concerts and recitals.

School officials want their 617 students to expand their horizons and consider Mount Vernon Square -- with its fountains and ornate 19th-century townhouses -- as their campus, the same way New York University students consider Washington Square their home, said Sirota, who chaired the music department at NYU and drew inspiration from the school's layout after coming to Baltimore four years ago.

Peabody also is renovating the facade of a 19th-century townhouse at 609 N. Charles St. that houses the school's public relations offices.

"We want to create a more open atmosphere that draws people in rather than puts them off," said Sirota. "Part of our plan is to remove what I call the jail-like 'Central Booking' look of our main entrance. And we also want to serve as an economic engine for the city."

The opening of Maestro's Cafe is expected to be part of a small resurgence at North Charles and Centre streets, an area that draws an arty crowd for the Walters Art Gallery, Centre Stage theater and upscale shops and restaurants.

Immediately west of the piano store, local businessman Tony Millon plans to convert the closed Buttery restaurant by Nov. 1 into the Museum Cafe, which will have an artistic theme.

Next month, Sascha's Daily catering business at 5 E. Hamilton St. plans to open a restaurant at 527 N. Charles St. Holy Frijole Mexican restaurant is slated to open in the 400 block of N. Charles St. this month. And the long-transient Contemporary Art Museum intends to open a permanent exhibit and offices at 100 W. Centre St. on Sept. 25.

Next summer, the Downtown Partnership business organization plans to add brick sidewalks, antique-style street lamps and trees in planters on North Charles Street.

Laurie Schwartz, executive director of the Downtown Partnership, said the Peabody is joining a growing number of colleges across the United States in realizing their fates are linked to the health of their cities.

"I think this is a wonderful example of a nonprofit institution trying to expand its reach farther into the city," said Schwartz.

Jamie Hunt, director of the Mount Vernon Cultural District arts organization, said that before this project, the Peabody had a reputation as a world-class music school but was thought of as an almost monastic institution that didn't bother with the outside world.

A 'fortress-like' design

One reason for the school's introversion lies in its history.

Founded in 1857 by industrialist George Foster Peabody as Baltimore's first public library, museum and lecture hall, the conservatory thrived for decades in what was the city's ritziest neighborhood. But during the 1960s, Mount Vernon and the school were hurt by middle-class flight and rising crime.

When the school built dormitories in 1966, it adopted a "fortress-like" design and walled itself off to protect its students, said Jim Zeller, the conservatory's director of facilities.

Facing falling enrollment and bankruptcy, the Peabody strengthened itself financially in 1977 by joining the Johns Hopkins University system, administrators said. Since then, the conservatory has doubled its enrollment and seen its endowment grow from almost nothing to $57 million.

Until it received a large anonymous gift and a $150,000 grant from the Abell Foundation recently, the school didn't have the money to renovate its entrance or enter the real estate market, said Zeller.

"Peabody's history of health is a barometer of Baltimore's health," said Ann Garside, spokeswoman for the school. "When the city booms, the Peabody booms as well. What we are hoping is that we are both on another upswing now."

Students taking time off from auditions last week said they are looking forward to having a cafe across the street where they can hang out and flip through sheet music.

"The cafe sounds like a wonderful idea, because a lot of people here on campus don't have cars, so having more options within walking distance makes life better for all of us," said Allison Graham, 24, a French horn graduate student from Seattle.

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