Architects unveil final design for much larger visitor center to open on historic site in 2010

The Baltimore Sun

Future visitors to Baltimore's Fort McHenry will learn about its role in American history by taking part in an "immersive experience" that will enable them to witness a pivotal battle in the War of 1812 as if through the eyes of Francis Scott Key, the attorney who wrote the poem that became the national anthem.

Efforts to build a new visitor center for the fort in South Baltimore cleared a key hurdle yesterday when architects unveiled a final design for the project, which has been in the planning stages for more than a decade.

The current 5,700-square-foot center was designed to accommodate 125,000 to 150,000 visitors a year and was declared obsolete from the day it opened in 1964. The new center will be more than three times as large - 17,200 square feet - and was designed to handle 758,000 visitors a year, the number expected by 2010.

Known as the birthplace of The Star-Spangled Banner," the song that became the national anthem, the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine draws 600,000 to 700,000 visitors a year, making it one of Baltimore's busiest tourist attractions.

Re-enactments of the 1814 Battle of Baltimore will be shown in a multimedia theater anchoring one end of the planned $14 million visitor center and educational facility, which will include museum-quality exhibits, a library, a gift shop and offices for employees.

Construction is scheduled to begin in 2009 and be completed in 2010, well before the bicentennial of the War of 1812. Funding includes an $11 million federal grant and money from the city, state and private donors.

"We're on the fast track now," said Alan Walden, a local radio personality and chairman emeritus of the Friends of Fort McHenry, a private group that helped raise funds for the center. "It won't be long before we're ready to put a shovel in the ground."

The new building "will contain things that simply don't exist today - interactive displays, indoor and outdoor viewing spaces" of the fort and its surroundings, Walden said. "You'll be enveloped in the story of how the battle took place and what led Key to write 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' Most people can sing it, but they don't know where it came from. And I daresay most people know one verse, and there are four."

Built between 1798 and 1802 as part of the nation's defense against invaders, Fort McHenry withstood heavy shelling by a British fleet in September 1814, inspiring civilian attorney Key to write his poem.

The visitor center design was unveiled last night during the "Fort Night Gala," an event honoring Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and former Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who received the Francis Scott Key Award from the Friends of Fort McHenry.

The gala marked the start of "Star-Spangled Banner Weekend," which will include the 193rd anniversary of Defender's Day, when the fort was bombarded.

The visitor center design team includes GWWO Inc. of Baltimore, the architect; Mahan Rykiel Associates of Baltimore, the landscape architect; and Haley Sharpe Design of Falls Church, Va., the exhibit designer.

To house the new theater and exhibits, GWWO designed a two-story structure that will be clad in brick, copper and glass. The bricks will come from the same supply as those fabricated to repair the fort's walls in the 1990s.

The new visitor center will be several hundred feet north and east of the existing one, which will remain open until the new one is complete and then be demolished. The replacement center will rise at the edge of a parking lot for the existing visitor center and is outside the original fort boundaries, to prevent disruption to any archeological treasures on the grounds.

Unlike some visitor centers, which are placed underground or designed to be barely noticeable in the landscape, Fort McHenry's will have a sculptural quality that will make it easy to find on the 43-acre park property, its designers say. Its outer walls will curve gently, and part of its roofline will sweep up toward the fort, to draw the observer's eye toward it and the large flag that flies overhead.

The building is being designed with environmentally sensitive materials and features to receive gold-level certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Alan Reed, president of GWWO, said the curving walls are meant to suggest the furling of a flag without literally depicting one.

"Our main inspiration for the new visitor center was our nation's most enduring symbol, 'The Star-Spangled Banner,'" he said.

The building will be slightly downhill from the historic fort and is designed not to upstage it in any way. "We didn't want it to compete with the fort," Reed said.

Strategically placed at the tip of the Locust Point peninsula, the star-shaped fort was named for James McHenry, a Baltimore resident who was secretary of war under Presidents George Washington and John Adams. It served as a fort until 1912 and became a national park in 1925. In 1939, Fort McHenry was designated a national monument and historic shrine, the only park in the country to have that double distinction.

The fort's current visitor center depicts the Battle of Baltimore as seen through the eyes of Dr. William Beanes, a local figure who long ago faded into obscurity. Walden said it makes more sense to tell the story through the eyes of Key, because he is so well-known as the author of the national anthem.

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