Hack­er­man House un­cov­ers its se­crets

Wal­ters work­ing on $10.4M ren­o­va­tion that will stress build­ing’s past

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Mary Ca­role McCauley

Bit by bit and room by room, the grand old house is be­gin­ning to re­veal its se­crets.

As Wal­ters Art Mu­seum staff mem­bers were pre­par­ing the Hack­er­man House for ren­o­va­tion, they be­gan dis­cov­er­ing tan­ta­liz­ing clues about the 166-year-old Greek Re­vival man­sion and the peo­ple who once lived in­side it.

For in­stance, who scraped the words “Pense a moi” — French for “think of me” — on a win­dow? Was it a lovelorn ado­les­cent, per­haps one of the chil­dren of Dr. John Han­son Thomas, who lived in the home from 1850 to 1892 — or was it their tu­tor? Were the words a sign of a bro­ken heart, or merely an at­tempt to show off a newly ac­quired ex­per­tise in a for­eign tongue?

“It was quite trendy in the 19th cen­tury to take your di­a­mond ring and scratch a mes­sage onto glass,” said Eleanor Hughes, the mu­seum’s deputy di­rec­tor for art and pro­gram. “We know that this room was once used as a bed­room. And we have con­firmed that the Thomas chil­dren were be­ing taught by a French gov­erness. We’re go­ing to do re­search and try to find out more.”

The $10.4 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion of One West Mount Ver­non Place in­cludes not just the Hack­er­man House but two small, at­tached spa­ces: a for­mer gar­den con­verted into a gallery and the car­riage house. The car­riage house and for­mer gar­den will re­open in the fall of 2017, while the re­fur­bished Hack­er­man House will be un­veiled in the spring of 2018.

Mu­seum di­rec­tors world­wide in­creas­ingly are be­gin­ning to think of their build­ings as be­ing part of the mu­seum’s col­lec­tions, not merely as blank can­vases in which mas­ter­pieces are dis­played. For

in­stance, when the Bal­ti­more Mu­seum of Art spent two years and $7.9 mil­lion re­in­stalling the Amer­i­can wing, one of the goals was to re­veal the neo­clas­si­cal ar­chi­tec­ture of John Rus­sell Pope’s 1929 Ro­man tem­ple-style de­sign.

As David Park Curry, a for­mer cu­ra­tor at the mu­seum, said two years ago when the Amer­i­can wing re­opened: “The big­gest piece of art we own is this build­ing.”

Like­wise, when the three-story pala­tial Hack­er­man House once again wel­comes the pub­lic, vis­i­tors will find their at­ten­tion di­rected not just to what’s hang­ing on the walls, but to the beauty of those walls them­selves.

In the past, Wal­ters’ di­rec­tor Ju­lia Mar­ciari-Alexan­der said, mu­seum-go­ers have been so con­di­tioned to fo­cus on the ob­jects on dis­play that such ar­chi­tec­tural flour­ishes as in­tri­cate ceil­ing mold­ings or grace­ful win­dows open­ing out onto stun­ning views of Mount Ver­non Place too of­ten went un­no­ticed.

“We are ap­proach­ing the re­fur­bish­ment of Hack­er­man House as if the build­ing it­self were a work of art,” she said.

The house is named af­ter Wil­lard Hack­er­man, the late phi­lan­thropist and busi­ness­man who do­nated it to the city in 1984. The Wal­ters later won a com­pe­ti­tion to de­ter­mine how the build­ing would be used.

The area un­der ren­o­va­tion, which has been closed to vis­i­tors since July 1, 2014, rep­re­sents about 14 per­cent of the mu­seum’s to­tal 60,000-square-foot ex­hi­bi­tion area, mu­seum spokes­woman Mona Rock said.

Un­touched are the mu­seum’s two other main build­ings that open onto Cen­tre and Charles Streets and that house the mu­seum’s col­lec­tions of an­cient, me­dieval, Baroque and Re­nais­sance art.

Roughly half of the ren­o­va­tion, which also in­cludes in­stalling up-to-date cli­mate­con­trol and fire-sup­pres­sion sys­tems, will be paid for with pub­lic funds. An ad­di­tional $1 mil­lion has been pledged by pri­vate donors. Ellen Bernard, chair­woman of the mu­seum’s board of trus­tees, said the Wal­ters has just be­gun a cam­paign to raise the re­main­ing $4 mil­lion.

Af­ter the ren­o­va­tion, vis­i­tors will no longer find the mu­seum’s Asian art col­lec­tion in Hack­er­man House. These art­works will find a new home in the for­mer gar­den (now known as the John and Berthe Ford Gallery) and in the car­riage house.

Merely tak­ing the sculp­tures, paint­ings and ce­ram­ics out of the Hack­er­man House was no easy feat.

For in­stance, one ob­ject slated for re­lo­ca­tion was a six-foot-tall stone statue of a Bod­hisattva, or some­one who is des­tined to be­come a Bud­dha. The statue weighs a ton. Lit­er­ally. Yup — 2,000 pounds. It has been hang­ing around and smil­ing be­at­if­i­cally since it was carved in China in the late sixth or early sev­enth cen­tury, and Mar­ciari-Alexan­der re­ally, re­ally didn’t want the statue to be dam­aged or worse, smashed to bits, on her watch.

The Bod­hisattva was too heavy to sim­ply carry down­stairs and out the front door. The only way to get it out of the sec­ond-floor gallery was the same way that Ren­o­va­tion of the Hack­er­man House in­cluded lift­ing a one-ton Bod­hisattva statue out a win­dow and to the side­walk. The Wal­ters Art Mu­seum’s Asian art col­lec­tion will be moved to other ar­eas where con­di­tions are bet­ter for pre­serv­ing an­cient ob­jects. it came in when it was in­stalled in 1991.

On Sept. 10, a Satur­day, mu­seum staff wrapped the statue care­fully, hoisted it up onto a crane, an­gled it out of a nearby win­dow and low­ered it — slowly, slowly — to the side­walk on Charles Street be­low. As Mar­ciari-Alexan­der watched, scenes of art world dis­as­ters flashed through her mind.

“I was pretty ner­vous,” Mar­ciari-Alexan­der said.

Luck­ily, the Bod­hisattva made it safely to the ground with all its limbs in­tact and its smile still in place, and was put in stor­age.

As Mar­ciari-Alexan­der ex­plains it, Hack­er­man House never was an ideal lo­ca­tion for most great works of art. The hu­mid­ity, light and air qual­ity re­quired to pre­serve an­cient ob­jects are at odds with ideal con­di­tions for pro­tect­ing the wood, plas­ter and fur­nish­ings of a very old home.

“The five build­ings that make up the Wal­ters Art Mu­seum are the largest and most com­plex art­works in our col­lec­tion,” she said. “We’re go­ing to be devot­ing more in­tel­lec­tual fire­power to the build­ings them­selves.”

In­deed, it’s only af­ter the art­work had been re­moved so that con­struc­tion could start that Mar­ciari-Alexan­der saw — re­ally saw — the build­ing for the first time.

The oval Tif­fany glass sky­light top­ping a stair­case glows for­est green and am­ber. The mas­sive chan­de­liers are mar­vels of crys­tal and met­al­work, whether they’re au­then­tic Bac­carat or merely Bac­carat-style. (Wal­ters staff mem­bers won’t know for cer­tain un­til they can take the be­he­moths down and ex­am­ine the stamp.)

And the li­brary. There must be at least 50 carved busts of such fig­ures as Wil­liam Shake­speare, Dante Alighieri, Ben­jamin Franklin and Queen El­iz­a­beth I, each about the size of a hu­man palm and mounted ver­ti­cally on the orig­i­nal ma­hogany pan­el­ing.

Once the heavy drapes were re­moved, it be­came pos­si­ble to ex­pe­ri­ence the Hack­er­man House not in iso­la­tion, but as part of the Mount Ver­non neigh­bor­hood. Glance out of one win­dow, and there it is — the gleam­ing white mar­ble Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment, just steps away.

“Rather than turn­ing ev­ery room of the Hack­er­man House into a gallery,” Mar­cia­r­iAlexan­der said, “we’re try­ing to find a dif­fer­ent bal­ance be­tween mu­seum and his­toric house and gallery space. We want to start think­ing not just about what’s in­side the mu­seum but out­side it, about the spa­ces that shape the ways we come to­gether as in­di­vid­u­als.”

Once the ren­o­va­tion is com­plete, Hack­er­man House’s glass-filled for­mer con­ser­va­tory will be trans­formed into a coffee bar. A room on the sec­ond floor will be­come a stu­dio where vis­i­tors can make their own works of art. There will be space to hold recitals and oc­ca­sional par­ties.

Mar­ciari-Alexan­der said that art­works that can co­ex­ist with the home’s hu­mid­ity and light lev­els will be spread through­out Hack­er­man House. In­stal­la­tions will change ev­ery few years, in­stead of be­ing in­stalled more or less per­ma­nently. The first ex­hibit will show­case the Wal­ters’ ce­ram­ics col­lec­tion.

Mu­seum-go­ers craft­ing their own flow­er­pots will be able to walk a few feet to ex­am­ine a 19th-cen­tury vase en­closed in a glass cube. When pos­si­ble, art­works will be dis­played in the rooms in which they nat­u­rally would be used. For ex­am­ple, vis­i­tors to the home’s for­mer li­brary can ex­am­ine rare books from the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion.

It was while pre­par­ing the li­brary for ren­o­va­tion that work­ers stum­bled upon an­other of the home’s se­crets. As they stripped off the green­ish-gold bro­cade pan­els on the li­brary’s walls, they saw first a glimpse of terra cotta, and then a flash of stone. It seems that be­neath the fab­ric were el­e­gant plas­ter pan­els that were painted red-brown and framed by three-di­men­sional gray mold­ings.

“These pan­els have been cov­ered up for more than 100 years,” Mar­ciari-Alexan­der said. “No one alive today has seen them. We think that our vis­i­tors will find a very dif­fer­ent Hack­er­man House go­ing for­ward.”


Ju­lia Mar­ciari-Alexan­der, di­rec­tor of the Wal­ters Art Mu­seum, stands at the top of the Hack­er­man House’s grand stair­case. Mar­cia­r­iAlexan­der says the ren­o­va­tion pro­ject will treat the his­toric man­sion at One West Mount Ver­non Place as a work of art in it­self.


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