Robert Sirota, director of the Peabody Institute, says he is well aware of his institution's shortcomings when it comes to public access, and he has an anecdote to illustrate his concern. Sirota takes a moment to explain the architecture at the Baltimore Police Department's central booking facility on Guilford Avenue. He remarks on its built-in wheelchair access, the abundant lighting and its large glass walls. Then comes Sirota's punchline:
"It is actually more attractive to get arrested in this city than to go to a concert at Peabody."
Although Sirota is joking, he says he is not taking the issue of public access lightly. The evidence of his concern is wrapped up in the school's master planning document, drawn up last year, that details an estimated $9 million in capital renovations and improvements focused on opening up the campus to the surrounding community.
The first phase of that three-year plan, which calls for converting a newly acquired building across from campus on East Centre Street into office and retail space, is already nearing completion. The shops, including a bookstore/cafe and a piano showroom, will be finished by the start of the fall term.
The construction at Peabody is part of the envisioned renaissance of the Mount Vernon neighborhood, as nearly $300 million in capital improvements are scheduled for area buildings and institutions over the next several years. A nonprofit group known as the Mount Vernon Cultural District--whose members include Peabody, the Walters Art Gallery and the Enoch Pratt Free Library--has banded together to discuss issues such as cleanliness and safety on the street, streetscapes, signage and cultural tourism. Among the group's other members are the Baltimore School for the Arts, the Basilica of the Assumption, Center Stage, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and The Baltimore Sun.
Peabody's efforts are representative of the cultural group's push to make the area more visitor-friendly, Sirota says.
"We have to create an architecture that says 'come in.' Right now the architecture says 'stay out,'" Sirota says. "So we are looking at ways of improving access and making this a more open and public space."
Specifically, the school's master plan--created by the architectural firms of Murphy & Dittenhafer Inc., of Baltimore, and Hardy-Holzman-Pfieffer Associates, of New York--calls for a new main entrance off Mount Vernon Square; construction of a visitors' center; exterior restoration of Schapiro House, which faces North Charles Street; and an upgrade of the campus's central plaza.
Renovation has already begun on Schapiro House--now home to campus police and the offices of Public Information, Development, Alumni Relations and Human Resources--while the remaining part of the master plan will be executed sometime in 2002 or 2003, when funds become available.
The changes can't come soon enough for Sirota, who has been offering open houses to fight the perception that Peabody is closed off to the community.
"The improvements we are going to make are centered around the reopening of the 'front door,' if you will," Sirota says.
The existing entrance to the George Peabody Library, what Sirota calls the "traditional front door to Peabody," will become the campus's new main entrance.
"If you look at the building, that is the natural place to go in," Sirota says.
The centerpiece of the plan will be an atrium connecting the air space between the two conservatory buildings. The atrium, which could be as high as four stories and will likely have a glass ceiling, will connect the Mount Vernon Place entrance to the campus plaza.
Inside the atrium leading into the conservatory and the George Peabody Library will be the Rouse Visitors' Center and commons area, made possible by a significant donation by the Columbia-based Rouse Company. The new visitors' center will include a box office for Peabody performances and an information booth offering details on what is going on at Peabody and in the surrounding community.
The atrium also will house a new elevator system, which will provide access from the parking garage to the library and performance spaces.
Peabody concert patrons arriving by car must now traverse a labyrinthine path to go from the school's garage to the performance hall. And those on foot are required to enter through the Peabody Mews, located off Washington Place opposite the Walters Art Gallery, only to be greeted by a locked gate and a guard house.
"It will make it a more attractive venue for performers and for those coming to see the show," Sirota says. "This atrium will eliminate the up and down stairs and complicated access that we have now. It will also open up new instructional space in our existing buildings."
As part of the master plan, Peabody Mews will be used as a secondary pedestrian access. Eliminated will be the gates and guardhouse. The system of archways in the plaza also will be removed, and the plaza itself will be reconfigured and landscaped. Pedestrians will then be able to cut through campus to go from Washington Place to Centre Street and from Centre Street to Mount Vernon Place.
"We want to make the architecture more user-friendly, while at the same time maintaining security," Sirota says.
The school over time has become increasingly sealed off from the community, according to Sirota, as a way of protecting itself and preserving the security of its people and its valuable collection of instruments.
"Yet so much of what security is now was done for expediency and the architectural limitations of the building complex here," he adds.
Sirota says there still will be designated secure areas, such as student dormitories, that will require a key card to gain access. As for the rest of the campus, Sirota says a strong security presence will remain.
"We will do it much the way that a museum protects itself, or any school," Sirota says. "We are looking at models of other schools, notably Juilliard and the New England Conservatory, to see how they handle security measures. We have every intention of creating a secure environment for our students and faculty. But at the same time we want this to be a place where the public is welcome, where they can come to concerts, classes and lectures and feel that [Peabody] is part of their community."
The push to increase tourism in the Mount Vernon Cultural District, which could include such efforts as uniform street markers and signage on buildings, is one that Peabody embraces, Sirota says.
"This effort will create a think-alike entity for the Mount Vernon area. The banners now on the streetlights are a start to that," he says. "The idea is to improve the whole community so that when people come to Mount Vernon, they come to a safer and more desirable environment."
Jim Zeller, associate dean for administration at Peabody, says the district's improvements also will assist in bringing new homeowners to the area. As part of that effort, the university has recently added Mt. Vernon to its list of neighborhoods in which employees can participate in the Live Near Your Work program. LNYW, which offers incentives for Baltimore City homeownership, provides a minimum of $3,000 to home buyers by contributing $1,000 to match like amounts from the local government and from the employer.
"Live Near Your Work is all about ownership," Zeller says. "And the interests we have are concerned with making the whole area more livable, more vibrant and safer."
Adding to the vibrancy of the area will be the $150,000 renovation of 3-5 E. Centre St., now nearing completion. The building will be the new home of the Peabody bookstore and coffee bar, Jordan Kitt's Piano Salon and the permanent offices for Peabody Ventures, the for-profit technology wing of Peabody.
The bookstore will feature educational texts, music- and arts-related volumes and sheet music. The old bookstore, located on the ground level of the East Residence Hall Tower, will become a computer lab and offices for career services. The piano salon is a branch of Jordan Kitt's of Cockeysville, the only certified dealer of Steinway pianos in the Baltimore-Washington area.
Other projects of note in the master plan are the renovation of East Hall, which will become an orchestra rehearsal space; handicap accessibility improvements; the creation of additional instructional and practice space; and various mechanical and electrical improvements to the campus buildings.
Sirota emphasizes, however, that before major construction work begins in two years, the school still has to raise a significant amount of money. To date, $1.5 million has been raised.
The institution is currently soliciting architectural firms for design proposals for the renovations.
As for Peabody's pending emergence into the community, Sirota says he is "extremely excited." He is also looking forward to the day when he can put his detention-center joke to rest.