Something Fresh at 1 Mt. Vernon West
By Carrie Greif, WPAMC Class of 2019
On September 16, 2018 the residual rain from hurricane season relented and I strolled down the streets of Baltimore’s historic Mt. Vernon neighborhood. I was on a mission to visit the recently reopened 1 Mount Vernon West. The expedition was not without hiccups. In order to enter the house, one can either walk through an unmarked side door or they can journey through the elaborate maze that is the Walters Museum. After experimenting with both options, I recommend the side door. Though be sure to wander around to the front of the house and note the incredible composite order columns.
If photos of the amazing interior aren’t enough motivation for a visit – rest assured that the site is a refreshing interpretation of what historic houses can and should be. This historic house will leave any visitor with new ideas about the world, past and present, while empowering them to take agency in their own experience.
The house has been closed since July 1, 2014 and reopened in May of 2018 after a $10.4 million-dollar renovation. It functions as about 14% of the Walters’ 60,000-square-foot exhibition space and how the esteemed property came into the Walters clutches is an interesting story of asset management.
Dr. John Hanson Thomas built the Greek Revival Mansion—until recently known as the Hackermen House—in 1848 or 1850. In 1892 Mr. and Mrs. Francis M. Jencks purchased the home and remodeled it under the direction of Charles A. Platt who was also the architect of the Freer Gallery in Washington, DC. When the Jencks passed, the house fell into disrepair. Mr. Harry Leo Gladding purchased the building in 1963 and restored it to his standards. Willard Hackermen acquired the building after the death of Mr. Gladding and was concerned that it would be converted to commercial use.
Legend claims that he took the keys to the house and put them on Mayor William Donald Schaefer’s desk. The mayor then held a proposal contest to determine the best use of the structure. The Walters Museum won with a proposal to convert the house into galleries for its renowned Asian Art collection. The Hackerman House opened in the spring of 1991.
When I walked into the house 1 West, as it is referred to by staff and on the institution’s app, I was the only person there besides a woman wearing a lovely beaded gown who was having her photos taken on the staircase. This is exactly how the space is meant to be used. The introduction text to this historic interior does not drone on about previous owners like I did in the above paragraph. The text states that the house is, “A work of art in its own right and as a home: lounge in the parlor, read in the library express your creativity in the upstairs studio, and socialize in the conservatory.” Agency in experience is given entirely to the visitor and this is something one rarely finds at a historic home. If one wants, they can simply use the space as a fabulous setting. In the era of competitive co-operative workspaces this is an ingenious way to entice new visitors.
The reconceptualization of the historic house as a functional space does not overshadow the strength and creativity used in interpretation. The stories of the home are told through an app that can either be downloaded on visitors’ phones or accessed via iPads that are available at the security desk. The app is composed of six themes; on display, inhabitants, labor, makers, Baltimore, and entertainment. Each room has content that the visitor can consume based on these central themes. Each of the five distinct rooms cultivate a range in experience that is enlightening to the spectrum of visitor interests.
My personal favorite was the Double Parlor where I learned about the Jencks family servants as well as the incredible Roberto Lugo garniture. But each room has a completely different feel. The library invites visitors to hear about the architecture from the site’s curator. It also allows guest to explore the digitized manuscript collection. One could spend days poring through fascinating volumes on the computers in the center of the room.
A lot of historic house museums emphasize the concept of telling stories as a way to interpret spaces and collections. With the reopening of 1 West these institutions should be inspired to move beyond the narrative and instead try to expose visitors to distinct universes. Instead of projecting a story onto visitors, spaces should be designed to allow them to explore—because isn’t that what we are all really trying to do?