The Mega-Walters – the one that was never built!

IMG_8284

An article in The New York Times of December 12th, titled “In the Arts, Bigger Buildings May Not Be Better” (http://s.nyt.com/u/vd0), invites us to consider whether art museum directors and thier donors were taken in with “irrational exuberance” in recent years rivaling that of the crazies in the stock market.

The articles references lots of expensive buildings with flash that aspired to the same civic economic and public-relations impact of Frank Gehry’s Bilbao adventure of 1997 – and in various degrees, failed.

Short-term assets with an initial spike in attendance and, in some but not all cases, good press, were turning into long-term financial liabilities.

One might come away thinking that it was a sign of good museum management NOT to build.

Well, in 1958 the WALTERS had great ambitions for a mega-museum. It would have occupied the entire block upon which its three present public buildings now sit.  That the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion (Stanford White/John Russell Pope) would have been a casualty of this new Walters got people’s attention. There was a campaign to defeat the  bond bill, and the building never happened.

Which was probably a good thing.

The fall-back “new Walters” was realized with the Brutalist-style Shepley Bulfinch adventure in concrete of 1974. The problem (among many others) was that it leeked heat in the winter and absorbed heat in the summer – and it opened just in time for the oil crisis!

The Walters itself was nearly a casualty of that unlucky timing.

But then, for all its faults, it was probably good for Baltimore that we got it. Without the 74 Wing, as it was called, there would be no Walters auditorium, no Walters temporary exhibition space, and thousands of works collected by Walters father and son would have remain in storage. 

But had that Times article been written in 1975 and not in 2009, we certainly would have been mentioned – and not at all favorably.

Walters - Centre Street Building
Walters - Centre Street Building