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  Peabody Opens to the Public

The transformation from insular institution to community anchor is nearly complete.

By Catherine Pierre
Photos by Will Kirk

Opening Photo: The focal point of the Grand Arcade is its sweeping staircase, whose ornate ironwork — here still wrapped during construction — complements the bannisters in the conservatory building. The walk past the dumpsters, through the guarded iron gates, in the back door, and around a maze of corridors and stairways on your way — finally — to the Friedberg Concert Hall was worth it when you wanted to see the Peabody Institute's stellar performances. But it wasn't the most welcoming beginning to a concert experience.

Fortunately, a recent overhaul has made that path a lot more pleasant.

The arcade is located in what was dead space between the conservatory and library buildings. Beginning this month, visitors to Peabody will enter through the restored original entrance on Mount Vernon Place and stroll through the Grand Arcade, a dramatic, light-filled space that connects the campus's historic buildings. Designed by architect Michael Quinn to be Peabody's "main street," the glass-covered arcade features the Rouse Visitors Center, an expanded box office, and cascading staircases — all carved out of what was formerly unused outdoor space.

The renovation project — which took three years and cost $26.8 million — started somewhat modestly, when administrators realized that the buildings were showing their age. (Peabody was founded in 1857.) Not only were they badly in need of upgrades to electrical, HVAC, and plumbing systems; but there was a serious lack of performance, rehearsal, and office space.
"What started as a project to fix what was falling apart began to grow into something more ambitious," says Peabody Director Robert Sirota. The plan grew to include making Peabody "more open and accessible to the community and to the people who use it every day — the students, the faculty, and the staff."

At right, Gustav Meier leads the Conductor's Orchestra through a class in the renovated East Hall. The space is acoustically sound, big enough to accommodate large ensembles, and connected directly to the recording studio — a great improvement over the original East Hall (below, right), which was "a ramshackle, broken-down space," says Sirota.

The project created new performance and rehearsal space, and enhanced existing space with soundproofing and state-of-the-art acoustics. New walkways make it possible to get anywhere on campus without going outside (which can be important to students carrying expensive instruments). A new gallery entrance will be used for public exhibitions, and the concert and ensemble offices are now closer to the Friedberg stage. All these improvements make the buildings not only more user-friendly, but also worthy of the world-class institution they house.

Peabody is located in Baltimore's Mount Vernon Cultural District, along with the Walters Art Museum, the Maryland Historical Society, the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute, Center Stage, and others. Peabody wants to be a good neighbor, which makes this renovation about more than buildings. "It's a metaphor for growth and change at Peabody in general," says Sirota. "We really are seeking to be a more engaged member of the community. We see Peabody as emblematic of the role that cultural institutions are playing in the revitalization of cities."

The new 100-seat Cohen-Davison Family Theatre fits small chamber ensembles perfectly. It also serves well as the Jazz Orchestra's rehearsal space. To that end, Peabody is celebrating its Grand Reopening with the Music for the World Festival from April 17 to 25. It will feature more than a week's worth of concerts by Peabody's major ensembles, big-name performers, and rising young talent. A symposium of political and business leaders from cities throughout the East Coast will focus on how arts institutions invigorate urban areas.

Says Sirota, "We are inviting the community in and announcing both to the immediate surroundings, as well as to the world, that we are very engaged with setting the agenda for the future of the arts in this country."

Return to April 2004 Table of Contents

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