Good Neighbors

How a Design School Inspires Baltimore's Bolton Hill

With funds from Andrew Carnegie, the Main Building of Maryland Institute College of Art was completed in 1907.

In Bolton Hill, one of Baltimore's most historic neighborhoods, pristine 19th-century row houses line brick sidewalks, providing an aura of dignified charm. Over the years, those houses have been home to many of the city's most prominent citizens who enjoy the proximity to downtown and the campus of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. Bolton Hill is bordered on one side by a once-grand boulevard that is being gentrified, and on the other by the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), whose students add a significant dollop of spice and liveliness to the area.

One of the leading visual arts institutions in the country, MICA attracts some 1,800 students from almost every state and abroad. It offers undergraduate study programs to students seeking careers in art and design and offers a variety of graduate degrees. Things happen within the walls of MICA's remarkable collection of buildings that spill out onto the campus and across Mt. Royal Street to Bolton Hill: art exhibits, concerts, and unusual, often inexplicable, pieces of sculpture. Two of the institute's historic buildings are in Bolton Hill proper.

As poet Robert Frost put it, "good fences make good neighbors," but there is no need for a fence between these two disparate communities. They get along like an old married couple, each needing the other for support and security. Indeed, the architectural grace and the stability of Bolton Hill is a plus for the institute when it is recruiting students.

"If MICA wasn't a presence in the neighborhood, I would never have chosen to live here," says 25-year-long resident Robin Coblentz. "The students are a kick.  They liven up our streets and make me feel young again. Of course one can always find the conservative grump who doesn't appreciate purple hair and exotic garb ... so just let him move out." (Of course, there are occasional complaints from landlords who find student renters to be excessively noisy.)

MICA's renovation of Mount Royal Station was made possible thanks in part to a 2005 challenge grant from Save America's Treasures.

After Baltimore's great fire in 1904, MICA moved from downtown to its first building, an imposing white marble Renaissance Revival-style palazzo that the school built in 1907 and modernized in 1990. The building remains the heart of the campus.

Nearby, the institute's most imaginative adaptive-reuse project is the Baltimore & Ohio Mt. Royal Station, renovated in 1964 to house a library and the college's sculpture program. The massive granite structure was built in in 1896, when the B&O Railroad could afford to spend lavishly on architecture. A blend of Romanesque and Italian Renaissance styles, it is distinguished by an imposing tower and an enormous long roof covering rail tracks along which a few freight trains continue to rumble every day. The building received National Historic Landmark status in 1976. The institute's careful stewardship of the station and the palazzo has provided a model for many other academic institutions.

MICA endeared itself to the residents of Bolton Hill when it restored the former Hospital for Women of Maryland. Built in 1885, the large, brick structure had been vacant for ten years and was a neighborhood eyesore. Renamed for benefactors, Meyerhoff House in its new incarnation is a residence hall for 200 upper-level students: a local landmark revived for practical use. 

Retired attorney Harry Lord was born in the hospital and some years ago moved to Bolton Hill from the countryside. "My wife says I have returned to the womb," he jokes, "but we love it here even though we had to leave our animals behind."

MICA also has become a patron of innovative contemporary design. The "green" Brown Center, which focuses on art and technology, opened in 2007. A conversation stopper and the subject of much spirited discussion, its sharp-edged, semi-opaque white glass form looks like a series of beached icebergs. The building is the first new academic structure undertaken by the college in almost 100 years and was named after Eddie Brown, a leading African American investment manager whose daughter attended MICA. He donated $6 million to the project.

The Maryland Institute College of Art renovated this 1915 shoe warehouse as classrooms in 1980 and again in 2005.

The school's newest landmark, the Gateway, is a nine-story, multi-hued, green-glass tower that anchors the campus to the north. Part of it takes the shape of a curve formed around a private, open courtyard. Housing both students and studio facilities, the building is a well-lighted beacon at night, tempting motorist-voyeurs to look at student life through the glass. Fred Lazarus, the institute's president for the past three decades, says the Gateway "epitomizes the importance of taking a creative approach to development in an urban setting." Lazarus has not been afraid to take the bold steps necessary to put MICA on the map. And in the eyes of almost everyone, he has succeeded beyond all measure. Last year, Preservation Maryland honored Lazarus with a stewardship award.

MICA's commitment to being a good neighbor is lauded by politicians, preservationists, city planners and neighborhood activists. Says former State Senator and prominent civic leader Julian Lapides, "The college has been a wonderful neighbor, and over the years sought input and involvement from the residents of Bolton Hill in all of its restoration and renovation projects. But its crowning achievement was giving new life to the derelict Women's Hospital.  It was a wonderful idea which has benefitted everyone."

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.

Subscribe to the Today's News RSS feed


Submitted by claire at: March 10, 2010
I'm a little homesick after reading this article. I always appreciated the relationship between MICA and Bolton Hill as a young art student, though I didn't stick around to persue a degree there due to dissatisfaction with the neighborhood I'm from-- Sandtown-Windchester. That said, I think the term gentrification is appropriate (cross Eutaw Place at Lauren's- a different world) and according to the histories of the older people who grew up in my neighborhood...

Submitted by 4 pines at: March 9, 2010
This article on MICA and Bolton Hill brings back wonderful memories. As grad of Mica from the 60s and living in Bolton Hill this symbiotic relationship has been the case for decades and was (is) rewarding to all concerned. Your comment about an old married couple sums it up well. A true creative environment built on mutual respect.

Submitted by Richard Layman at: March 9, 2010
your use of the word gentrified is a real stretch. Is a neighborhood that experiences growth and reinvestment after having experienced decades of disinvestment "being gentrified" or is it merely experiencing reinvestment.