The 'vision' of Charles Center renewal


Downtown Baltimore is bustling with redevelopment activity these days, from the Ritz Carlton condominiums along Key Highway to new shops on Charles Street and apartments on the west side.

But there was a time when it seemed practically impossible to attract people to the city - and Baltimore faced municipal bankruptcy if it didn't take action.

The story of the city's campaign to revitalize itself is told through words and photographs in an exhibit that has been mounted in one of the structures where the rebuilding began.

A Great Vision: Launching Baltimore's Charles Center focuses on the city's efforts to rebuild 33 acres in the heart of downtown, as told by architects and planners who led the process more than 50 years ago.

The exhibit is on the first floor of the Johns Hopkins University's Downtown Center at 10 N. Charles St., part of the Charles Center renewal area.

It features black-and-white photos by Marion E. Warren, the official photographer for the renewal project, and excerpts from oral histories collected by his daughter, author and historian Mame Warren.

"The visionaries who created this dynamic new district shared a passion to revitalize the city," Mame Warren states in her narrative.

"Bolstered by creative ideas and nonstop energy, they not only rejuvenated the 33 acres that comprise Charles Center but also dreamed of the renaissance of Baltimore's Inner Harbor. ... The memories of those tireless people recall an exhilarating time and encourage us to consider how we, too, can help shape Baltimore's future."

Charles Center is bounded roughly by Charles, Saratoga, Liberty and Lombard streets. Planning began in the mid-1950s and resulted in construction or renovation of more than two dozen buildings, including offices, housing, stores, garages and the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.

The narrators of A Great Vision include Martin Millspaugh and Barbara Bonnell, early directors of the Charles Center Management Office; architects Charles Lamb, George Kostritsky and Donald Sickler; and landscape architect Bill Potts.

Their comments, along with Warren's photographs, are valuable for anyone who wants to know how Baltimore turned itself around starting in the 1950s and who deserves credit. The exhibit also contains planning advice that is as useful today as it was then, such as the admonition to "think big."

"It was [developer] Jim Rouse who said, 'We have got to have big dreams,'" Bonnell recalls in the exhibit. "'We have got to have a great vision. We have got to fire people up and get them excited. ... It's got to be large enough to have an impact but small enough to have some immediate success.'"

"The Fidelity and Deposit building, the B&O; office building, the Lord Baltimore Hotel and the original Baltimore Gas and Electric building were all kept," Lamb noted. "And for good reasons. We could preserve as well as push forward the new. It's a contextual response that's quite appropriate in cities."

"One of my unstated objectives was to end up with a situation were you couldn't tell where Charles Center began and ended after we were finished," Millspaugh said. "That was definitely intentional."

Hopkins' Downtown Center is home to the Johns Hopkins School of Professional Studies in Business and Education. Created inside the shell of the former Hamburger's clothing store, it was one of the first structures to be completed in keeping with the Charles Center master plan.

A Great Vision was created with financial support from the Greater Baltimore Committee and Baltimore businessman Peter Angelos, owner of the One Charles Center office tower.

The exhibit is free and open to the public six days a week through next year. Hours are 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays; and 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturdays.

Pop culture museum

Cho Benn Holback + Associates of Baltimore is the lead architect for Geppi's Entertainment Museum, the latest attraction for Baltimore's Camden Yards renewal area.

The 16,000-square-foot pop culture museum is scheduled to open next summer on the second and third floors of Camden Station, above the Sports Legends at Camden Yards museum. Its galleries will feature items from founder Steve Geppi's extensive collection of comics, toys and collectibles, with a focus on the rise of the comic character in print, radio, television and advertising. The displays will follow a chronological sequence of major historical events and periods of social change and the resulting development of pop culture.

Geppi, who also owns a minority share in the Orioles, is one of the world's leading comic distributors. Mark Ward, deputy director of the American Visionary Art Museum, is working with Geppi's Entertainment Museum as a consultant.

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