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08.12.2014
Ghosts of Gehry's Past
Two early Frank Gehry buildings in Maryland receive makeovers.
Gehryys Rouse company headquarters before renovation.
Courtesy Howard Hughes

Two of architect Frank Gehry’s early buildings in Maryland are getting multi-million dollar makeovers. The former Rouse Company headquarters in Columbia, Maryland, by Frank O. Gehry and Associates, is being converted at a cost of $25 million to a mixed-use development anchored by a Whole Foods Market and a community wellness center. Cho Benn Holback + Associates of Baltimore is the lead architect for the project, which will open in phases starting later this summer.

About a mile away, the Columbia Merriweather Post Pavilion, a regional concert venue designed by Gehry, Walsh, and O’Malley and opened in 1967, will receive a $19 million renovation to keep it competitive as a performance space. Grimm + Parker Architects of Maryland and Virginia is leading the design effort, and improvements will be completed over the next five years.

The building after alteration.
 

Behind both projects is The Howard Hughes Corp., a Dallas based firm that serves as the master developer of Columbia, an unincorporated city of 100,000 founded by the Rouse Company starting in the 1960s.

Developer James Rouse, who died in 1996 and would have turned 100 this year, was an early patron of Frank Gehry, who worked during the 1950s as a staff architect for Victor Gruen Associates, a California-based designer of shopping centers.

Howard Hughes plans to expand Columbia by developing new offices, retail space, residences, and public amenities. Gehry said during a tour in 2012 that he thought Columbia turned out pretty much the way Rouse envisioned it and that he is open to the idea of working there again with Howard Hughes. “I’d love to play with them,” he said.

To house the Rouse Company, Gehry designed a four-story, 150,000-square-foot building with a steel frame laid out on a 30-foot-by-30-foot grid with white stucco walls. Wood trellises and upper level terraces overlook one of the community’s manmade lakes, Kittamaqundi. Gehry reportedly called the building an “elegant warehouse.” The interior featured a central sky-lit atrium, a pedestrian “street” to promote interaction among employees, and a mix of direct and ambient lighting that grew out of research for the Joseph Magnin Co. department stores.

Inside the Whole Foods.
 

Howard Hughes originally tried to find another “single user” that would want the building as a corporate headquarters, but there were no takers. The adaptive reuse plan that Howard Hughes eventually followed called for the building to be subdivided to accommodate different tenants on each floor, while the exterior kept the look that Gehry designed as much as possible.

Plans call for the lowest level to be converted to a 28,000-square-foot “mind and body” wellness center and retreat called Haven on the Lake. The second level, which is accessible from the main parking lot, will contain a 50,000-square-foot Whole Foods Market. The top level, formerly the large meeting room, will contain about 20,000 square feet of office and exhibit space for Howard Hughes.

One of the biggest design moves that Cho Benn Holback made was the decision to remove most of the building’s third level, to create a double height space for Whole Foods. With that move, the amount of space in the building dropped from 150,000 square feet to roughly 89,000 square feet.

Another significant change was creating a new main entrance for the market and a secondary entrance and new elevators providing access to the upper level offices. The new market entrance introduces a vertical element to an elevation that had predominantly horizontal lines. A large green Whole Foods sign has been added to the front facade, set against one of the original white walls, providing something of a counterpoint to the new entrance, and a new side loading dock was created to serve the retailer.

At the Merriweather Post Pavilion, the use will remain the same: an open-air concert venue active three seasons of the year. The goal, operators say, is to extend its life and attractiveness, upgrade its features and make it more environmentally friendly. “Merriweather desperately needed some renovations,” said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman. “We needed to work to make sure that Merriweather is ready for its next act.” The facility can seat about 6,000 people under its roof and more on a sloping lawn beyond. The work will be completed in stages, during the off season, so the venue can remain open the rest of the year. The first phase of improvements is scheduled to begin this fall.

The improvements include new seating, new restrooms and concessions, new artist dressing rooms, a new stage, and a raised main roof. Green features include an expanded solar energy system, new LED lights, and more energy efficient restrooms and concessions. The facility already has a solar array that powers house and backstage lighting, composting facilities, and an onsite bio diesel fueling station for performers’ touring vehicles.

The project is being funded by $9.5 million from Howard Hughes and a $9.5 million loan from Howard County. Once work is complete, ownership will transfer from Howard Hughes to a non-profit organization called the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission. IMP Productions has a long-term agreement to serve as the operator.

“When you go to other venues, you realize how different this is,” said Seth Hurwitz, chairman of IMP. “It’s something that you need to preserve. It’s something that couldn’t be built today… From the Frank Gehry roof and all the little things that make it what it is, it‘s very special. The trick will be to renovate it and keep the charm—kind of like Wrigley Field.”

Edward Gunts