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In Detail> Gilman Hall at Johns Hopkins University
Kliment Halsband and Robert Silman Associates renew a Georgian Revival home for the humanities in Baltimore
The glazed canopy of the central well soars over a light-filled new lounge space.
Peter Mauss/Esto

Completed in 1915, the Georgian Revival–style Gilman Hall was the first academic building to be constructed on Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood Campus in Baltimore. A gorgeous landmarked edifice purpose-built for the humanities department, it no longer fit the bill. Not only had the department expanded in size over the years, causing programs to scatter, but its methods had changed, rendering many of the building’s inherent architectural features obsolete—for instance, the cast iron book stacks that penetrated the full height of the four-story building in the north and south wings. Disused for years since the opening of a central library, the stacks were kept under lock and key, creating 30-by-60-foot voids in the midst of the floor plan. A central light well’s windows had been bricked over, relegating much of the interior to a permanent midnight. In addition, Gilman hadn’t a hint of modern mechanical systems—tenants relied on window units for air conditioning. Circulation was a nightmare, with piecemeal renovations over the years creating odd level changes and dead-end corridors.

A circulation corridor wraps around the new exhibition space.

Into this mess waded New York City firm Kliment Halsband Architects, whom the university hired to conduct a gut renovation and modernization of the 146,000-square-foot structure. The institution wanted to reconsolidate the humanities under this one roof, but with more usable space. Also part of the program was a new exhibition area for the Ancient and Near-Eastern studies program; its impressive collection of 3,000-year-old artifacts had for years been stowed away in Tupperware containers for safe keeping. While preserving the landmarked exterior, the school wanted enough 21st-century infrastructure to qualify the old hall for at least a LEED Silver rating.

The architects began by digging out a basement to house the mechanical systems. They rationalized the internal circulation around the central light well, eliminating the level changes and dead ends, and making the building ADA-compliant. A corridor loop mirrors the donut-shaped plan. They also removed the outmoded book stacks, clearing up thousands of square feet of programmable space that was converted to classrooms, seminar rooms, and faculty lounges. The perimeter faculty offices were left intact. At 10-by-20 feet, they were nicely shaped spaces and more or less consistent with current standards. Plus, they already lined up with the existing fenestration, which had to be maintained. Preserving these partitions earned the project LEED points. The envelope was, of course, refurbished: the brick repointed, the windows replaced with historically accurate insulated versions. The slate roof was left untouched, since analysis showed it to be good for another 50 years.

From perimeter to core, in concentric rings, the building shifts from historic to modern. This transition reaches its zenith in the 60-by-60-foot central light well, which the architects transformed into a lounge space enclosed by a glass-and-steel tension-grid structure. Designed with German firm Schlaich Bergermann, this barrel-vaulted skylight is made from four 8,000-pound framing ladders that hold 154 square glass panels, each weighing 500 pounds. Stainless steel tension cables strung underneath the structure provide additional support and prevent lateral movement. Custom stainless steel clamps support the 5-foot, 1 1/2-inch-thick glass panes at the four corners only. The entire assembly is less than 10 inches thick.

The renovated facility has been carefully inserted within Gilman Hall's traditional 1915 exterior.

The lounge sits on the second floor, connecting Gilman’s main entry hall to the east with the preserved Hutzler Reading Room to the west. The architects salvaged the lounge’s gray marble floor from the demolished book stacks, re-cutting the two-inch-thick slabs and polishing them before installation. Moats on either side of the lounge reveal a lower level that houses a new exhibition space for the Ancient and Near-Eastern studies program.

One major concern when designing the light-well space was that all of the hard surfaces—glass skylight, marble floor, brick walls—would create an acoustical nightmare, a common problem with atriums. In the end, the walls of the well presented a solution. When opening them up for new windows, the architects found the original brick to be in bad shape. The eastern wall proved to be in the best condition, so it was preserved. The rest, however, were re-clad with 2-inch terra cotta tubes, spaced 2 inches apart and backed by acoustical panels. The result was a success. You can walk around in tap shoes, hold a banquet, or host a lecture without any noise echoing back, a boon even for academics in love with the sound of their own voices.

Aaron Seward