Gothic spaceship lands on west side


The new home of the University of Maryland's School of Law evokes a wealth of images:

On the outside, it's a medieval fortress, with brick towers, arched windows and turrets. Inside, it's a spaceship -- with courtrooms more technologically advanced than one might find in the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse and recording studios that could rival those of the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting.

It's also a bridge -- between old and new, professor and student, campus and city. The mix of a Collegiate Gothic-style exterior with state-of-the-art interiors may seem a curious pairing, but it's actually an effective metaphor for the many ways the building itself serves as a bridge, physically and symbolically.

It's the University of Maryland's Gothic spaceship, going where no law school has gone before to bridge the gap between past and future, tradition and innovation, on an urban campus that is making great strides to reach out and be a more integral part of the city.

The five-story, $41 million structure, known as the Nathan Patz Law Center, opened this summer and will be dedicated at 3 p.m. Friday in a ceremony that will include remarks by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

A new front door to the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus for many, it's also one of most impressive structures to open on the west side of downtown Baltimore since the city unveiled a $350 million revitalization plan four years ago. It already has been selected to receive one of Gov. Parris Glendening's Smart Growth Awards for 2002.

Named for a Baltimore lawyer who graduated from the school in 1926 and died four years ago, the 223,000-square-foot building at 500 W. Baltimore St. replaces Lane Hall, a 1965 building that occupied the same spot. Administrators liked the location, but they wanted a new building that would give the school more space, accommodate a changing curriculum and incorporate technological advances.

In 1999 the law school moved to temporary quarters so Lane Hall could be razed to make way for its replacement. The Thurgood Marshall Law Library, a 1980 addition, was rebuilt as part of the law center, which also houses the School of Social Work's Public Service and Research Center.

To design the new structure, the university hired RCG Inc. of Baltimore, with Jonathan Fishman as design principal, and Hartman Cox Architects of Washington, with Mario Boiardi as design partner. (Boiardi has since joined RCG.) Peter Schwab was the project manager for RCG. Graham Landscape Inc. was the landscape architect. The SmithGroup provided interior design services.

Gothic neighborhood

When the architects unveiled plans that indicated the building might have a Collegiate Gothic exterior, some members of the city's design review panel expressed skepticism. H.L. Mencken may have likened Baltimore to a "once-great medieval city," they noted, but did modern-day architects have to take him literally?

But Gothic Revival architecture offered advantages to designers searching for a language that would help make their building stand out on campus and yet also fit in with Baltimore's eclectic landscape.

The architects had been struck by the design of Westminster Hall, the English Gothic church from 1852 that shares the block with the law school and is now used as a meeting hall by its nonprofit affiliate, the Westminster Preservation Trust. Its cemetery, the Old Western Burial Ground, is the final resting spot of Edgar Allan Poe -- and one of the area's few green spaces. The architects wisely realized that they could be terrific assets and that the best way to give the rebuilt law school a distinctive sense of place was by playing up the connection between it, the church and its grounds.

RCG and Hartman Cox initially suggested more contemporary expressions for the exterior of the law center, but they weren't as well received as the idea of using a Collegiate Gothic vocabulary, Boiardi said.

"That style embodies the aspirations and vision of the law school for its educational programs," he said. "The law is traditional. It's built on precedent. A building language which is traditional and has its roots in the history of the development of the law, particularly in England, is something that resonates with lawyers."

Fishman and Boiardi approached the design challenge in a serious way, using brick and precast stone to create facades that suggest dignity, permanence, tradition. Their design takes cues from Westminster Hall, without mimicking it. Whereas Lane Hall was set back from Baltimore and Paca streets, they built Patz Center closer to the street edge, providing twice the amount of space and more successfully framing the plaza across Baltimore Street.

Inside, the building is well ordered and easy to get around. The structure is U-shaped in plan, and the chief organizing element is a skylit atrium off the main lobby. Faculty offices are interspersed with classrooms on every floor to promote interaction between students and professors.

The teaching spaces are much more contemporary in feel than the exterior. The building has three courtrooms and 10 classrooms, seating between 30 and 130 students. One of the most impressive spaces is the Ceremonial Court Room, with cherry-paneled walls, seats arranged in a gentle curve and state-of-the-art audiovisual and computer technology.

The rest of the building is equipped with the latest teaching and learning technologies as well. Every seat in every classroom, seminar room and clinical workspace is wired for computer access. Blackboards no longer use chalk and felt erasers -- they're 'e-blackboards' that provide a portal to the Internet. The library, too, has been expanded and updated. Its two-story reading room is one of the most handsome spaces on campus -- a throwback to academic libraries of old.

One of the most delightful features is a midblock courtyard that overlooks the burial ground, giving the law school a new private outdoor space and reinforcing its link to the historic church.

Links to city, state

The design is further enriched by details that help establish a strong connection with Balti-more and Maryland. In the courtyard is a fountain with bronze water spouts shaped like ravens' heads -- sculpted by Toby Mendiz as a reference to Poe's poem. An elevator enclosure between the law school and library doubles as a clock tower featuring a Westmin-ster chime. Above the arched entrances on the exterior are portal stones embellished with motifs of the Maryland flag and seal.

None of these details was inexpensive, of course. Part of this building's significance is that Dean Karen Rothenberg was so successful in raising private funds to supplement the state's appropriation and complete many of the improvements, such as custom millwork and accessibility features for people with disabilities. That's what makes the building such a vote of confidence by the private sector in both the university and the west side.

The blend of new and old is reminiscent of the way Oriole Park was designed to have a new-fangled, old-fashioned feel. In the case of the law center, the interior and exterior complement each other because they are in dialogue. The traditional exterior warms up the interior, which might otherwise have been too sterile with all its high-tech gizmos. Those interior features, meanwhile, bring the medieval fortress into the 21st century.

The late writer John Dos Passos suggested in 1973 that "the ideal city would be one where ... samples have been preserved of all the different phases of architecture and decoration" that have come before.

Baltimore didn't exactly need another building of Gothic proportions or overtones. But now that it's complete, the Nathan Patz Law Center provides an exceptionally well-designed and well-equipped home for the law school and a striking foil for Westminster Hall. Together, they bring the city that much closer to meeting Dos Passos' definition of ideal.

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