Where the past embraces and teaches the future

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Stuffy. Stodgy. Uptight. Predictable.

Visitors might have been excused for using those words to describe the Maryland Historical Society in the past. But a three-story gallery wing and glass-clad entrance pavilion, both of which opened this month, give a decidedly different impression.

With completion of the $10 million project - the culmination of a seven-year expansion program - the historical society finally has exhibition spaces worthy of its remarkable collections of Maryland art and artifacts. From its zinc-coated exterior to its third-level gallery with a 20-foot-high ceiling, the exhibit building brings new clarity and order to the Mount Vernon history campus, while giving curators a chance to rethink how the collections are displayed.

The additions also may change perceptions of the nearly 160-year-old institution itself. They have a sense of light and air, refinement and sophistication not found in the older, Beaux Arts-influenced structures on the block. They announce that this is a place concerned with the future as well as the past. The primary challenge for the society and its staff will be deciding how to make the most of them.

The Maryland Historical Society is not a museum in the traditional sense. Founded in 1844, the private, nonprofit society includes a museum, library, press and educational division, and has an annual operating budget of approximately $4 million. Over the years, it has amassed extensive collections of paintings, prints, furniture, textiles and other decorative arts, with an emphasis on Marylandia. Its 55,000 visitors a year can find anything from a giant figure of Nipper the dog to Francis Scott Key's original manuscript of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

More than anything, the society is "a research and educational institution with the mission of helping Marylanders learn more about their past in order to chart their future," said the director, Dennis Fiori. "We see ourselves as providing the people of Maryland with a service, which is bringing them their history."

The historical society exhibits objects not as individual works of beauty - the way an art museum does - but as part of a larger story about the people and times that produced them. As a result, Fiori said, curators aim to provide supplementary information that helps visitors understand the tales these artifacts can tell.

"It's not that the things themselves aren't beautiful," Fiori said. "It's just that you need more context, more data, to understand history exhibits."

The gallery wing and entrance are part of a $30 million expansion launched in 1997 to accommodate the society's growth. 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. The new buildings add 40,000 square feet of space and represent the first all-new structures to rise on the campus in 20 years.

As designed by Ziger/Snead Architects of Baltimore, with Steve Ziger as principal in charge, the additions achieve three goals: They provide museum-quality spaces in which the society can display its holdings in the proper context. They put the society itself in a different context, providing a more contemporary image than before. And they reorganize the campus, strengthening its divisions and making its contents more accessible than ever.

The old layout interspersed public galleries and library rooms with educational and administrative areas that were off limits to the general public - a confusing arrangement.

The architects' solution was to pull all of the exhibit space out of the older buildings on the north end of campus and create a new building for exhibits on the south side, where the former Greyhound bus garage already had been converted to exhibit space.

That decision allowed the society to build a first-rate museum for permanent and changing exhibits, while freeing up space in the older buildings along Monument Street for a library expansion.

To provide access to both the consolidated exhibit spaces and expanded library - and maintain a sense of balance on campus - the architects also created a new entrance courtyard between the two, facing Park Avenue. Designed by landscape architect Michael Vergason, the new courtyard serves as a main entrance and features a reflecting pool, London plane and ginkgo trees, and flowering annuals in colors of the Maryland flag. The old entrance at 201 W. Monument St. is now used mostly for school groups.

Located at midblock, the entry court divides the campus in half. The library frames its north side, and the three-story exhibit gallery frames its south side. To the west is the glass-clad entry building, called the Beard Pavilion. Set back from Park Avenue, it provides access to both the library and exhibit galleries.

The three-story gallery building rises next to the former Greyhound bus garage and is linked to it at ground level. Clad in zinc panels, with narrow windows in strategic locations, it's an intentionally modern addition for an eclectic campus, and a direct reflection of the institution's educational philosophy.

"The campus is itself a collection of living artifacts, each building a representation of an era in Baltimore's history," Ziger said. "The 1847 Pratt House was modernized in 1868. The bus terminal design was cutting-edge in its time. The historical society has long recognized that the past and future are part of a continuum. This approach to the study of history is reflected in all that the institution does - its exhibits, its programs and the way it encouraged us to design ... "

The design team, which included Darragh Brady, Craig Carbrey, Nils Eddy and Glenn Shrum, originally considered a brick skin for the gallery building but were afraid it 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.

They chose zinc, Ziger said, because the panels 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. Windows were inserted not only to let in natural light, but to break up the long wall with a dynamic pattern while providing glimpses of the art inside.

This minimalist gallery building is exactly what it looks like - a container for exhibits. With its precise lines and taut skin - the result of putting the glass and metal panels on the same plane - it has an air of mystery that makes one wonder what's inside.

The interior contains three levels of galleries. The first has been designed so its galleries can be combined with or kept separate from those of the former Greyhound bus garage. Both now feature an introductory exhibit called Looking for Liberty, the society's overview of 350 years of Maryland history.

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

The second level houses the society's visual arts gallery, filled with paintings and other objects. The third level will be used to display furniture and decorative arts starting next June, but it was empty when the building opened this month.

In its raw state, it's possible to see the potential this space has. Natural light filters through the clerestory windows, which were designed to diffuse light. Other windows offer views of the courtyard, helping visitors maintain their bearings. It's a powerful space, all about the play of light, and one hopes exhibit designers don't negate its impact by dividing it into small chambers. It enables the society to be more of a museum than ever before - if curators want to grow in that direction.

The detailing of windows, lights, stairs and other architectural elements is remarkably refined. Ziger said he drew inspiration for the design details by studying the collections. "If you look at Maryland furniture, for example, there's a certain refinement, grace and precision to it," he said. "Our respect for these qualities is reflected in the materials, proportions and detailing of the new buildings."

The entry pavilion also benefits from the architects' attention to detail. It's essentially a circulation space, but its detailing makes it a destination unto itself. The glass facade on the Park Avenue side provides a transparent face to the world at large. Interior walls are made of brick, wood and plaster, echoing the materials found in the society's older structures. Stairs, ramps and lighting come together in a way that makes it an elegant transition between old and new - and a promising setting for the display of silver and other objects that might get lost in larger spaces.

Construction of the exhibit wing and glass connector allowed the society to complete extensive renovations to the H. Furlong Baldwin Library. All former galleries on the second floor of the Thomas and Hugg Memorial Building, along with a lower level renovated to accommodate library collections storage, have been converted to library spaces, doubling its square footage.

There's a new information desk and larger, more comfortable areas where people can conduct research. But the real highlight on this side of campus is the restoration of the old main reading room to its 1919 appearance. Freed from years of accumulated clutter, it's once again one of the society's most attractive spaces.

More changes are on the way, beginning in February with a 100th anniversary exhibit on Baltimore's Great Fire of 1904. The architects have designated a spot to create a cafe overlooking the pool. An enclosed pedestrian bridge will rise along Park Avenue to link the gallery building with the 1919 Keyser Library. The courtyard will become a repository for architectural artifacts. Fiori talks of playing music in the exhibit areas and offering audio tapes for self-guided tours. Finally, the campus needs a more direct connection to Howard Street and the light rail line, to reinforce revitalization efforts on the west side of downtown.

Many of these changes will materialize as money becomes available. Even now, though, it's clear that the Maryland Historical Society and its architects have made great strides in repositioning the campus as a civic treasure worth repeat visits.

"We hope people will come," Fiori said. "We'd like to get elevated in people's minds, so that when they're making choices about what to do on a weekend, they'll at least put us in the mix."

The scope and quality of future exhibits will influence attendance more than anything else the society does. But with its impressive new galleries and easy-to-navigate layout, it has a fighting chance.

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