Guardian of the past looks to its future


The Maryland Historical Society's Mount Vernon campus is filled with buildings that are emblematic of the periods in which they were built -- from the stately Pratt House of the 1840s to the streamlined former Greyhound bus station of the 1940s -- and its next major addition promises to be no different.

Leaders plan to break ground by Dec. 1 on a three-story, $10 million gallery building and entrance that will reflect contemporary attitudes about spacemaking, expressive use of materials and openness in museum design.

One of the first structures in the region to feature zinc on the exterior, the addition will unify and clarify a fragmented campus, while defining a new main entrance off Park Avenue. The chief gesture to the past will be a sculpture court containing architectural artifacts.

"The site is a collection of period pieces, you might say," observed Steve Ziger of Ziger Snead Inc., the architect. "Most of them are true to their time. We felt it was important for us to be true to our time, to show that history is a continuum."

Founded in 1844, the private, nonprofit society includes a museum, library, press and educational division. It boasts one of the nation's largest collections of Americana, with emphasis on Maryland art and artifacts. The gallery building and entranceway are part of a $20 million expansion campaign that was launched in 1997 (and has since grown into a $29.5 million campaign). Earlier phases involved renovation of older buildings owned or acquired by the society, which now controls the entire city block bounded by Howard, Centre and Monument streets and Park Avenue, plus other properties. This will be the first all-new structure to rise on the campus since the France-Merrick Wing opened in 1982.

According to director Dennis Fiori, the society gained 40,000 square feet of space through renovation of the former Home Mutual building at 104 W. Centre St. and the former Greyhound terminal at 601 N. Howard St. That work -- representing an $8 million investment -- saved the society money because it was completed for an average of $40 per square foot, as opposed to costs of $250 per square foot for new construction. "It makes good economic sense to reuse buildings from the neighborhood," Fiori says. "Preservation is a bargain."

New exhibit space

It also gave architects of the new building a chance to focus on providing first-rate exhibit space for furniture, paintings and other objects in the society's collection.

They've responded by putting a three-story gallery wing next to the old Greyhound bus garage at Park Avenue and Centre Street, a building that has been converted to a column-free exhibit space called the Heritage Wing.

The first floor of the new building has been designed so its galleries can be combined with those of the Heritage Wing or kept separate from them. It will contain an introductory exhibit on Maryland history. The upper two floors will contain distinct galleries, with decorative arts, furniture and textiles displayed on the second level and paintings and other fine arts on the third.

The galleries will have ceilings ranging in height from 13 feet on the first and second floors to 20 feet on the third -- much higher than the 9 1/2 -foot ceilings in its current galleries. The main galleries on each floor will be 36 feet wide and 110 feet long -- comparable to the dimensions of the Walters Art Museum's Baroque Gallery.

Equally important, the gallery building will bring new spatial clarity to the growing history campus. The current layout can be confusing to visitors because it intersperses the public galleries and library with areas closed to the public. Once the addition is complete, all of the exhibit space will be consolidated in one area, making it easier for visitors to become oriented.

The Heritage Wing and the three-story gallery building together will be known as the Center for Maryland Life. This quadrant of the society's property will be linked to its Monument Street buildings by a connector parallel to Park Avenue but set back in the middle of the block. The open space from the curb to the front doors will be an arrival courtyard and outdoor exhibit area. School groups will use the existing Monument Street entrance, and staffers and visitors arriving by car wlll enter on the west side of the new connector.

Ziger Snead clad the new entrance in clear glass. Until now, the society's buildings have been relatively inward-looking, so it's difficult to tell from the street what's happening inside. The glass entry and forecourt will help draw the public in by making the entrance as transparent and inviting as possible.

For the gallery wing, largely windowless, the architects have proposed a surface of zinc panels, with glass openings where needed to let natural light into galleries or circulation spaces. The largest openings will be clerestory windows on the north side of the building.

Besides Ziger, the design team includes Darragh Brady, Nils Eddy and Olga Mendel. Ziger said the design team originally considered a brick skin for the gallery building. But team members were afraid a brick addition would divide the campus into brick and nonbrick buildings, when their goal was to tie it together. That led them to search for a material that would unify the campus and be "of its time." They chose zinc because the panels will weather to a warm gray finish that is close to a color found on the former Greyhound buildings as well as the slate roofs of the buildings along Monument Street.

Zinc is "of its time," Ziger said, because the fabrication process involves technology not available until recently. Windows will be inserted not only to provide natural light, he said, but to break up the long wall with a dynamic pattern while displaying treasures inside. The building will have a "very taut skin" because the glass and the metal panels will be on the same plane. Its minimalist vocabulary gives the effect of a building that is direct and rational -- a straightforward container for the artifacts inside. It's a fitting successor to earlier Maryland buildings that were straightforward in their own way.

"The design reflects a long and rich Maryland history that is very much alive and kicking," Ziger said. "It strikes a balance between an architecture that is rooted in the past and one that has a living, vital energy for today."

Architect's touches

The design is full of touches that have come to be characteristic of Ziger Snead's work, such as making effective use of every square inch of space, limiting the palette of materials and solving old problems in new and unexpected ways.

Proportions of the new facades are based on studies of the classic proportions of older buildings on the society's campus and elsewhere in Mount Vernon. Some windows in the painting gallery have been put at ankle level as a way of getting natural light to illuminate the floor as well as the ceiling and walls. The entrance will be an essay in sumptous materials -- Beaver Dam marble for a donor wall, brick for a wall behind the receptionist's desk and slate on the floor -- all from Maryland. Many of the objects in the entrance court, such as the tympanum of the old Farmers and Merchants Bank, are likely to come from the sculpture garden of the Peale Museum, which is no longer open to the public.

Future work will include expansion of the library by taking over rooms currently used as exhibit galleries; conversion of the library's reading room to a silver gallery, and renovating the interior of the Pratt House, whose exterior recently was restored. Outside the library will be three areas to exhibit items from its collection, including prints, maps, manuscripts and photographs.

A glass bridge will be created above street level along Park Avenue to link the Center for Maryland Life to the Keyser Building and Pratt House, while framing the new entrance. "We'd like to exhibit the glass collection there," so objects on display can cast reflections and shadows on the bridge itself, Ziger said. "It will create a gateway into the whole precinct."

Fiori said the society has raised $26 million and hopes to have $29.5 million by the Dec. 1 start of construction. Plans call for construction to be complete by early 2003. Installation of exhibits will take another half-year, putting the grand opening at October 2003.

"Our capital campaign has been a great success," Fiori said. "It has gone as well as it could."

One could say the same for the design. By recycling older buildings wherever possible, the society has significantly upgraded its physical plant while preserving neighborhood landmarks. This addition takes it to the next level. In a very real sense, it will open a window on Maryland history-- while pointing to the future as well.

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