Well-anchored design

The Baltimore Sun

To tack a boat, in sailing parlance, means to change direction abruptly, sometimes to avoid an obstacle or treacherous waters.

That's essentially what architect Joseph Boggs has done with his preliminary design for Maryland's newest museum, the $30 million National Sailing Hall of Fame, planned for the Annapolis waterfront.

By taking the unusual tack of placing the building at an angle to the street, Boggs has avoided the need to tear down a historically significant structure on the site, while giving the museum visual and physical access to the water's edge. In the process, he has been able to head off opposition from preservationists who could derail the project, while reinforcing the idea that the Hall of Fame will help celebrate Annapolis' maritime heritage.

"In sailing, you're tacking to avoid something or to change course," said Boggs, design principal for Boggs & Partners of Annapolis. "It was a natural metaphor for our design. It's a way of positioning the building so it makes more of a connection to the water."

With the approach he has taken, Boggs is also on his way to accomplishing a different sort of goal: showing that it's possible for an architect to design a successful "modern" building for a historic setting, a structure that is both compatible with its surroundings and reflective of its own time and mission. That, too, can require avoiding obstacles and following a course different from what might be expected. But it has the potential to pay off in a big way for a project such as this - and the city where it's located.

The National Sailing Hall of Fame will be a three-story, 20,000-square-foot interactive museum designed to highlight the "heroes and heritage" of American sailing, while preserving its artifacts and legacy. After considering cities such as Newport, R.I., and San Diego, the organization's leaders, including Honorary Advisory Committee chairman Walter Cronkite, chose Annapolis as the setting, solidifying its reputation as a sailing capital.

When it's open, the Hall of Fame is expected to draw upward of 150,000 visitors a year, which would make it one of Maryland's busiest attractions. It is still in the planning stages, so no opening date has been set.

The site is a state-owned parcel at the foot of Prince George Street on Annapolis City Dock, next to the Naval Academy. It's a prime waterfront setting, with an ever-changing array of sailboats just outside the front door. The biggest obstacle to construction has been the presence of a two-story wood-frame structure at 69 Prince George St. that dates from the late 1800s.

Known as the Capt. William H. Burtis House, it was built by a member of the Oyster Navy, a precursor to the Natural Resources Police, which patrolled the bay beginning about 1870 to keep the peace among quarreling oyster harvesters. The adjacent dock is where ferry boats and oyster boats once landed and the governor's yacht had a berth, before it was sold.

Those connections make the setting a vivid reminder of Annapolis' days as a working waterfront, but they also pose a problem for any group that wants to add a building to the mix. A state-commissioned feasibility study recommended that the Burtis house be moved or torn down, but local preservationists have said they don't want that to happen because of its historic significance. Finding a way to save the house and still add all the space needed for the Hall of Fame was just one of many challenges Boggs took on when he became the architect.

Another challenge was creating a building whose form captures the project's spirit. For many architects, building in a historic district can mean creating a structure that fits quietly with its surroundings and that can be appropriate for "infill" structures.

But the way Boggs saw it, this is one project that shouldn't fade into the background. From the start, he envisioned the Hall of Fame as a foreground building that can be a symbol not only for sailing but Annapolis itself. He regards the commission as an opportunity to create a landmark that can stand for Annapolis in the same way the Sydney Opera House stands for its city or the Arch represents St. Louis.

"Whether they like opera or not, people know the opera house is a symbol for Sydney," Boggs said. "That's what the Sailing Hall of Fame can be for Annapolis. It's a way to rebrand the city and the state, and give people another reason to visit."

Annapolis is well known as the state capital and home of the Naval Academy, Boggs added. "What the Hall of Fame can do is provide a new way of looking at its waterfront and sailing history."

At the same time, Boggs said, he wants to use the Burtis House to help tell the story of sailing in America. But how to do so much in a limited setting? Grappling with that issue is what led him to draw inspiration from the idea of tacking a sailboat.

Instead of placing the Hall of Fame parallel to the Burtis House or up against it, Boggs decided to put it on a diagonal the way a sailor would tack a boat to catch the wind. He also tilted the roof of the new building so it starts from a low point back from the water's edge and rises up and out toward the harbor, clearing the pitched roof of the Burtis House. The result is a long, narrow structure that misses the Burtis House altogether and begins to envelop it, making it part of the museum's composition. It also sets up an architectural dialogue between old and new that speaks to the heart of what Annapolis and the Hall of Fame are all about.

Boggs' decision to place the building at an angle to the street has other benefits besides preserving the Burtis house. By setting the bulk of the building at an angle, he also opens up a "view corridor" at the foot of Prince George Street that will give visitors a wider perspective of the waterfront than if the building ran parallel to the street.

With the building's massing largely set, the architect found ways to introduce elements that indicate what is happening inside. The roof will be a series of wooden and weathered-copper forms that suggest the curved shapes of a sailboat's hull. These forms also echo the geometry of the large rounded roof atop the Naval Academy's Halsey Field House nearby. On the museum's second and third levels will be decks that offer panoramic harbor views, as if from the prow of a ship. The main entrance, meanwhile, will be marked by a series of abstracted metal sails that run vertically along Dock Street, the southwest side of the site.

The preliminary design makes reference to the Burtis House as well. Along Prince George Street, Boggs and design associate Manish Patel created two forms that protrude from the angled volume and line up with the street. Slightly narrower than the Burtis House, these forms recall the modest dwellings that stood next to the end house when it was part of a working-class community known as Hell Point. They won't be replicas of older houses so much as extensions of the Hall of Fame that provide exhibit space. They're intended to help give the Burtis House an urban context so it doesn't seem like it's standing alone and overwhelmed by a museum looming above.

Another important change made by the designers is opening up the harbor front by relocating a wall or unsightly electrical panels at the foot of Prince George Street and creating a pedestrian promenade along the water's edge.

Those are just a few of the moves that demonstrate a sophisticated approach to creating a public building that grows out of its context yet stands apart as an unapologetically contemporary addition to it. It's a strategy that has impressed preservationists and others who have been monitoring the design work, including Maryland Historical Trust director J. Rodney Little.

Little said Boggs met with him early on and indicated a genuine desire to use the site's historical assets, including the Burtis House, rather than wipe the slate clean. Although the design is still evolving, Little said, he believes Bogg's approach could serve as an example for other architects working in historic districts. "I have to give Joe Boggs credit," Little said. "He took the position that you can either treat the Burtis house as a problem or an opportunity. ... What has been presented so far, we very much agree with."

Little added that when state preservation officials review plans for new structures in historic districts, they're often disappointed to see designs that are nondescript or worse. "Usually, when we say it has to be compatible, we get a piece of imitative schlock without any contemporary value."

Boggs, Little said, has worked hard to come up with a design that is both compatible and contemporary. "I applaud him for it."

There is still much to do. The architects are working with designer Edwin Schlossberg to come up with exhibits for the interior. They have to decide exactly how the new structure will embrace and engage the historic one. And they need a clear strategy for getting pedestrians from the Naval Academy grounds to the Hall of Fame.

As they refine their design, the architects ought to think about ways to give the building even more of a sense of movement and more of an uplifting quality. If Boggs wants the National Sailing Hall of Fame to stand out like the Sydney Opera House, it really needs to soar. Given the subject matter and bold but sensitive design approach taken so far, this is one project that has the ability to do just that.

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