When is a hotel not just a hotel?
When its owners turn it into a work of art.
That's what managers of the Brookshire Suites Hotel want to do with their 13-story building at Calvert and Lombard streets in Baltimore.
They've hired an artist from North Carolina, Michael Brown, to create a mural that will change its appearance and draw the attention of shoppers, tourists and others visiting the Inner Harbor.
Brown has proposed a bold geometrical design that suggests a maze, a crossword puzzle grid, even an electronic circuit board. It's also somewhat reminiscent of Piet Mondrian's abstract painting Broadway Boogie Woogie.
Call it "Baltimore Boogie Woogie."
"If you have associations with it, that's a good sign," Brown said.
"To me, it's the motion of the city, the motion of downtown Baltimore. Stop. Go. Turn left. Turn right. It's like a visitor's initial experience when they come here."
In a presentation this month to Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel, Brown said the building's owner, Meyer Jabara Hotels of Danbury, Conn., is planning to make some alterations to its exterior, including installing guards to prevent birds from roosting there and adding insulation to the surface, which is a synthetic stucco material called Dryvit.
As long as they're working on the exterior, he said, they wanted to improve the building's appearance - and contacted him to design a mural.
Brown studied art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and heads Michael Brown Studios in Chapel Hill. His client list includes IBM Corp., Duke University, Wachovia Bank and the North Carolina Museum of History.
For the Brookshire hotel, he said, he sought to create a design that "would best enhance the appearance of the building and, at the same time, compliment the clean, modern look of the Inner Harbor and its art and architecture."
Brown said he drew inspiration from a variety of sources, including Ivan Chermayeff's signal flag graphic wall at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the window patterns of the Gallery at Harborplace complex at Pratt and Light streets, the smokestacks of the Pier 4 Power Plant, the mural on the Bromo Seltzer tower and "the strong pattern of the gun deck on the USS Constellation."
The mural would be painted on the Calvert and Lombard street facades of the hotel, incorporating its projecting windows as part of the design. The artist suggested two tones of paint, one light and one dark, perhaps with a brownish hue. Manolis Painting Co. of Baltimore is the painter.
Members of the review panel approved the preliminary design, enabling the artist to move ahead with further development of the mural. Brown's presentation prompted a spirited discussion among the panelists, who voiced strong reactions to the proposal.
Panel member M.J. "Jay" Brodie said the mural reminded him of Mondrian's 1940s-era Boogie Woogie compositions, which evoked the syncopated rhythms of urban life while reflecting the Dutch artist's love of boogie-woogie music.
"I like these paintings, and I think this would be cool," Brodie said.
Panel member Gary Bowden questioned why a hotel needs to stand out with bold graphics.
"Buildings that are entertainment-oriented need attention," he said. But, "I wonder why a hotel needs curbside attention. I don't think that's how people choose hotels."
Bowden questioned how the abstract mural would co-exist with the vertical sign on the Lombard Street facade and the lights visible through the hotel windows. He suggested that the artist consider introducing more color to the mural.
"I'm not sure the graphicization makes it any better architecture or worse architecture," he said.
"I don't think a strict interpretation of black and white is the way to go," said panel member Stan Britt. At the same time, too much use of a strong color such as purple might not be advisable either, he said. "We don't want this to end up as a symbol of Ravens football."
The 97-suite hotel has an unusual history. It was originally a parking structure known as the Minit Garage. Instead of ramps, the garage had an elevator that lifted cars up to different levels. It was called the Green Monster because of its green metal skin.
The garage was converted to a hotel in the early 1980s by a Columbia firm, International Hospitality Group. Meyers & D'Aleo was the architect for the conversion. The building prospered because of its proximity to both the harbor shoreline and the downtown business district.
The hotel was acquired in late 1999 by Meyer Jabara, which operates 27 hotels in 14 states. Besides owning the Brookshire, the company leases and operates the 80-room Admiral Fell Inn in Fells Point and the 65-room Pier 5 Hotel on Pier 5 in Baltimore. All three are operated by Harbor Magic Hotels, a division of Meyer Jabara.
Brown said he would take the panel's comments and suggestions into consideration as he refines the design. He said his client is hoping the final design can be approved in time for work to get under way this fall and completed before cold weather makes painting impossible.
The mural is one of several works of art that Meyer Jabara is adding to its Baltimore properties. It recently unveiled two stainless steel sculptures by Connecticut artist and Maryland Institute College of Art alumnus David Boyajian, at the entrance to the Brookshire Suites Hotel. They stand 10 feet tall and 4 feet in diameter and are titled Aegean Urns.
The owners have commissioned the same artist to create two bronze casts of stylized pineapples for the entrance to the Admiral Fell Inn and a large abstract work for the entrance to the Pier 5 hotel. The Fells Point work has been approved by the community's design review panel and is currently being fabricated. Meyer Jabara's budget for the Brookshire mural and the Boyajian sculpture is more than $250,000.
Ken Conklin, regional general manager for the Baltimore hotels, said company co-owner Richard Jabara collects the work of Boyajian, who earned a master's degree in fine arts from MICA's Rinehart School of Sculpture in 1982, and commissioned him to design the new works specifically for the three Baltimore sites. Conklin said he's looking forward to completion of the sculptures and the Brookshire's mural.
"It's going to be exciting," he said. "It's going to be a big improvement."