Memorial makes the monumental minimal

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore has memorials to presidents, to poets, to the woman who sewed the Star-Spangled Banner.

Now a city known for its monuments and statuary is about to build something new, and a bit off-the-wall: A memorial to a memorial.

The Maryland Stadium Authority has approved a contract for construction of a $775,547 structure in the Camden Yards area to honor war veterans.

But besides honoring veterans, this design also commemorates the city's last memorial erected in their memory: the recently demolished 33rd Street facade of Memorial Stadium.

Typically, memorials are works of art or architecture intended to help people remember some person or event. Their designers usually seek fresh ways to make their creations memorable and meaningful.

Designing the new Camden Yards memorial involved a different sort of exercise. Rather than starting fresh, its architects began with the idea of using elements from the 1953 stadium as a way to make a connection back to its Memorial Wall, which already has a firm place in Marylanders' memories.

The design calls for construction of a curving wall and landscaped plaza on the walkway between Oriole Park and Ravens Stadium. Instead of having a convex curve like Memorial Stadium's front wall, this wall will be concave, as a way to draw in passers-by and give them a place to pause. It will have a granite surface, rather than the concrete used on 33rd Street.

The new wall will bear some of the stainless steel letters that were mounted on the 33rd Street Memorial Wall; they were taken down before it was razed last year to make way for a senior housing community. The phrase spelled out by those letters, "TIME WILL NOT DIM THE GLORY OF THEIR DEEDS," is the last line from a longer inscription at Memorial Stadium. A new, second line will be etched in the granite stating who is being honored.

The Camden Yards memorial also will feature an urn containing soil from all U.S. military cemeteries around the globe, a vessel that had been on display inside Memorial Stadium. The urn will rest inside a vandal-proof glass case on a pedestal at one end of the wall, along with a marker containing an image of Memorial Stadium and facts about its history. Flags of the United States, Maryland and Baltimore, seating, and landscaping complete the design.

The memorial was designed by Cochran, Stephenson & Donkervoet, a local firm well known as an architect of the Baltimore Convention Center and other key civic commissions. Its president, Michael Bolinger, is a Vietnam War veteran.

Last spring, stadium authority officials voiced concerns that the state would not be able to start building the memorial this year because the General Assembly didn't allocate sufficient construction funds. But when demolition of Memorial Stadium cost $1.4 million less than legislators had allocated, the authority opted to use some of the unspent funds to build the Camden Yards memorial. Construction is set to begin on Veteran's Day, with Whiting-Turner as the contractor.

Reusing artifacts

If the sole task of the new memorial were to serve as a showplace for salvaged fragments from Memorial Stadium, one might argue that CS&D; has met the challenge. Its wall appears perfectly serviceable as a backdrop for the letters and transplanted urn.

One might even argue that the project's derivative nature is a logical outgrowth of the postmodern design movement, which has encouraged architects to dip into the grab bag of history. For 20 years, architects have been salvaging bits and pieces of demolished buildings and incorporating them into new structures like so much bric-a-brac. It was only a matter of time before someone started salvaging letters from buildings as well.

What is troubling about this project is not what the architects have done, but what they failed to do: to create an effective memorial to the group that was supposed to be commemorated in the first place - the war veterans.

The idea was to design a new memorial that essentially filled the same role as the old Memorial Wall, largely to appease preservationists and others who didn't want to see the original disappear. If artifacts from the old wall could be reused, so much the better.

Working with the stadium authority, which also coordinated the demolition of Memorial Stadium, the architects selected a site within Camden Yards for the new memorial, designed the curving wall and incorporated the letters and urn. They included the marker with its image of Memorial Stadium - the essence of the memorial to the memorial - for visitors years from now who may be unfamiliar with its history.

"There was a desire that the public today and tomorrow understand what Memorial Stadium was and why the words are where they are," Bolinger said. The marker "shows the lineage of the history of the memorial."

A similar marker is being planned for the 33rd Street property, to reinforce the connection between the two locations.

But anyone who expects the new memorial to have the impact and potency of the original is in for a disappointment.

Distinctive facade

The most impressive trait of Memorial Stadium's facade was its size. Rising the equivalent of 10 stories, it was an imposing presence that could be seen from blocks away. In a city of monuments, it was the most monumental of all.

The letters were distinctive in their own right. Featuring an art moderne typeface that was designed specifically for Memorial Stadium, they were at once reflective of their time and timeless.

The fact that the memorial was attached to the stadium worked in its favor, too. The facade honored war heroes; Memorial Stadium was an arena for sports heroes. The two went together.

One would have reason to hope that any memorial built to replace the towering stadium wall would have some of the same attributes it did. It should be powerful, moving, respectable. It should make people stop in their tracks. It should sear itself into one's memory, the way the Vietnam Memorial or the Holocaust Memorial Museum do in Washington.

But instead of aggrandizing its subject, there is a danger that the mini-memorial at Camden Yards will end up belittling what it sets out to venerate.

At 11 feet tall, the new wall won't command attention the way the old memorial did. It doesn't have the scale or heft. It looks like a park for skateboarders (and probably will become one.)

The stainless steel lettering has been pared down to one phrase from Memorial Stadium, and the letters will be recessed into the wall instead of standing out. It's a sound bite of the original message, a Cliffs Notes version of the full text.

The freestanding nature of the memorial may work against it, too. The 33rd Street wall gained strength by being part of the larger building and the events there. The Camden Yards memorial stands between two stadiums, but is not part of either and is dwarfed by both, as well as by the former B&O; Warehouse.

This is particularly troubling because the new memorial is intended to honor an expanded number of veterans. Memorial Stadium was dedicated to those who served in World Wars I and II; the new memorial will be dedicated to veterans of all wars involving the United States. The working text of the memorial's second line reads: "The citizens of the State of Maryland dedicate this Memorial to all veterans who so valiantly fought and served in our Nation's wars with eternal gratitude to those who made the supreme sacrifice to preserve equality and freedom throughout the World."

Those words have weight - although the run-on sentence could use a bit of editing. This second line echoes much of the text from the Memorial Stadium wall, practically word for word. But anyone passing by this memorial may be hard-pressed to tell by its size or shape that it means very much to those who erected it. Compared with the dignified monumentality of the wall on 33rd Street, it's all so meek and modest and studiously innocuous that it's unlikely to catch anyone's attention, or hold it for long.

The smaller size of the memorial and recessive nature of the design are the chief problems. To plop an 11-foot-high wall between two ballparks and call it a day hardly seems a fitting way to acknowledge the thousands of Marylanders who made the "supreme sacrifice" for their country, or the magnitude of the subject itself. The memorial doesn't live up to what the words on it say.

Review bypassed

In retrospect, one has to wonder if Camden Yards is the right place for this sort of project at all. It will get plenty of foot traffic, but it won't be visible from any major roads the way Memorial Stadium was. Locating it near the site of the old memorial might be more appropriate.

Another disappointment is the way the design was arrived at. Many memorials are determined after their sponsors hold design competitions and select a winner from the entries received. Such competitions cost money and take time. But they also help build public awareness and support, which can translate to visits later on.

There was no design competition for this project. The stadium authority simply turned to CS&D;, which is one of its tenants at Camden Yards. And although the architects have been working on the project for months, the design has never been presented to Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel for its comments. That makes it the first project in the Camden Yards renewal area to bypass that important review process - a disturbing precedent.

The end result is a building that may satisfy the bureaucrats who wanted to be sure something was built to replace Memorial Stadium, so they can say they kept a promise. But it doesn't contribute much to Camden Yards or the city in general. It's a trifle, an afterthought, an asterisk in the record book. Ultimately, it's an affront to the veterans it was meant to honor.

Time may not dim the glory of their deeds. Building this memorial will.

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