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After 22 years, the USS Constellation gains a new education center


One of Baltimore’s longest construction projects has finally opened its doors to the public, the latest in a series of improvements aimed at rejuvenating the Inner Harbor.

The Historic Ships in Baltimore USS Constellation Education Center and Inner Harbor Water Taxi Terminal is the name of a one-story building that now serves as a visitor center and boarding platform for the 1854 warship that’s one of the city’s biggest attractions.

The Constellation had been docked temporarily on the Inner Harbor’s west shore, awaiting completion of the new building. On Tuesday, it was moved back to its regular berth on the west side of Pier 1, and connected to the education center by two gangways. On Saturday at 10:30 a.m., a staffer unlocked the chain link construction fence that still frames the site, opened the gates, and visitors started heading towards the ticket counter.

Within the first half-hour, the new attraction had drawn visitors from Peru, New Zealand, Ireland, England, Slovenia and many other places, all paying $20 for a chance to tour the Constellation and other vessels that are part of Historic Ships in Baltimore, the maritime museum that operates the facility. Some of the initial visitors said they came specifically to tour the Constellation; others said they saw the gates open and just decided to go in.

“We thought it was a pirate ship,” said Jessica Fane, a visitor from Atlantic City, New Jersey, in town to see the Orioles game against the Cleveland Guardians and celebrate her one-year anniversary with her partner, Keri.

“We didn’t come to Baltimore to do historic things, but this is a nice surprise,” Keri Fane said after their tour. “This is definitely worth it.”

Tilen Rihtarsic and Nina Podjed said they’re touring the U. S. from Slovenia, had already been to Washington, D. C. and were on their way to Philadelphia and New York. “We’re doing a road trip and we wanted to stop here,” Rihtarsic said. “Very nice.“

“I saw the [Torsk] submarine this morning and I’m always interested in history,” said Sylvia Corwin of Atlanta, visiting with her sister Geno Angulo from Lima, Peru. “Amazing.”

“It’s about time,” said Ann Fentriss, a south Baltimore resident who walks along the Inner Harbor promenade every day for exercise and passed by Pier 1 just before the gates opened. “How long has it taken?”

Christopher Rowsom, executive director of Historic Ships in Baltimore and the man who unlocked the gates, said the education center was having a “soft opening” and that there likely would be a formal dedication ceremony later in the month. For now, he said, he’s just happy to see it open.

It’s taken “about 22 years, but it got done,” he said. “It really, really looks nice, and it will look even better once the site is cleaned up…. The important thing is that we have the ship open.”

The USS Constellation is a sloop-of-war, the last sail-only warship designed and built by the U. S. Navy. She was built in 1854, using a small amount of material salvaged from the 1797 frigate Constellation, which had been dissembled the year before.

The USF Constellation was known as the “Yankee Racehorse” because of her swift sailing speed and handling ability, and the 1854 warship was commissioned to carry on the Constellation name. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963, she’s now a museum ship that symbolizes Baltimore’s maritime heritage and its rebirth.

Other notoriously-long local construction projects include the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon, 14 years; the initial section of the Baltimore Beltway, eight years; the eight-lane Fort McHenry Tunnel, five and a half years; and the Francis Scott Key Bridge, five years.

The 4,800-square-foot education center replaced a larger structure that had been on the pier since 1991 and was razed in 2019. Its operator, Historic Ships in Baltimore, was created as the result of a merger of the USS Constellation Museum and the Baltimore Maritime Museum and is a program of the non-profit Living Classrooms Foundation.

Besides the Constellation, other historic vessels in the group’s collection are the USS Torsk submarine and Lightship 116 (LV116) Chesapeake on Pier 3 and USCG Cutter 37 on Pier 5. Historic Ships in Baltimore also operates the Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse on Pier 5.

The new building on Pier 1 contains a ticketing area and gift shop in the north end closest to the Inner Harbor promenade, exhibits about the Constellation and Baltimore’s maritime history in the south end, and a stairway and elevator in the middle that provides access to the ship. It will be the headquarters for Historic Ships in Baltimore. On the entry plaza is a cannon from the Constellation. The flat roof, with sweeping views of the harbor and downtown skyline, doubles as a rental spot for parties and events. W Architecture and Landscape Architecture of Brooklyn, headed by Barbara Wilks, was the architect. Mid-Atlantic General Contractors is the builder.

Still to come is a floating dock for the city’s water taxi system, at the south end of Pier 1. It will replace the stop at the amphitheater between the two Harborplace pavilions, an area that’s increasingly prone to flooding, and tickets for the water taxi will be sold on Pier 1.

Rowsom, who’s also a vice president of Living Classrooms, said the building is still getting finishing touches and its elevator isn’t working yet, but construction was far enough along for it to open. He said planning for the building dates back to 1999, when the Constellation Museum group was leading the effort and designs were approved by the city. Construction was at one point expected to start in 2013, with a target completion date of 2014. A construction sign on the site promises September of 2021.

Rowsom said Historic Ships in Baltimore inherited the project when it took over from the Constellation Museum group as steward of the Constellation in 1999. The previous two-story building had been widely criticized for blocking views of the Constellation and not fitting in with its surroundings. Benjamin Thompson, the architect of Harborplace, wrote in a letter to The Sun that its sudden appearance on Pier 1 was like “a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.”

Rowsom said the building was in poor condition after years of operation, difficult to maintain and not well-liked. “It really didn’t meet with the architectural design aesthetic for the Inner Harbor — past, present or future,” he said. “It was the building that everybody loved to hate.”

Part of the reason the project has taken so long is that the original group had trouble raising funds to build it solely as a visitors center for the Constellation. The project moved ahead after planners decided to have it serve as a Water Taxi stop as well, making it eligible for federal transportation funds not available to a museum project.

The final construction cost, just under $5 million, is covered by a combination of funds including $500,000 from the city; $1 million from the state, and nearly $1.8 million from the U. S. Department of Transportation. Additional sources included the Maryland Historical Trust; the Baltimore National Heritage Area, and the Charles T. Bauer Foundation, which contributed $500,000.

Other factors that added to the construction time, Rowsom said, were “the intricacies and logistics of building out on the pier” and supply-chain issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wilks designed the replacement building with more glass on the exterior so it would appear lighter and more transparent than its peanut butter-colored predecessor. It’s also lower than the previous structure. Two translucent bulkheads that enclose the stairways are pyramid-shaped forms that jut above the otherwise flat surface, a nod to the glass pyramids of the National Aquarium structures on Piers 3 and 4.

The building opened on the same day that the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore had its Baltimore by Baltimore Festival, the first in a series of monthly events designed to bring people to the Inner Harbor shoreline. Even before the festival started, hundreds of people could be seen strolling the promenade, enjoying the weather and views.

The education center opens at 10 a.m. daily, and the last time to board the Constellation is 4:30 p.m. Historic Ships in Baltimore offers a package that currently allows admission to three vessels – the Constellation, Torsk and USCG Cutter 37 – while the lightship is temporarily closed for repairs. Tickets can also be purchased where the other vessels are located.

The building on Pier 1 is one of several recent improvements to the Inner Harbor shoreline, including a $16.8 million makeover of 2.5 acres of Rash Field; a $7.75 million project to replace the glass pyramid roof of the National Aquarium, a new $2 million Domino Sugars sign; repairs to Vollis Simpson’s 55-foot-tall Whirligig at the American Visionary Art Museum and the reopening of the Baltimore Visitor Center at 401 Light Street.

The Maryland General Assembly this spring approved $166 million for projects in or near the Inner Harbor, including bulkheading around the shoreline and more improvements to Rash Field. In his State of the City address in April, Mayor Brandon Scott announced that C. David Bramble of MCB Real Estate would be the new developer of Harborplace.

Rowsom sees the Constellation’s return to Pier 1 and the education center’s opening as part of a wave of activity that promises to bring people back to Baltimore’s downtown waterfront.

“People say the Inner Harbor is dead, but it’s not,” he said. “It’s not terribly alive. It definitely needs a shot in the arm. But it’s not dead. We hope this will be part of the solution.”

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.
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