One year after Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects experienced the loss of one of its best-known buildings, the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan, another of the firm’s high profile commissions is being considered for possible demolition, by its original owner.
The Mattin Center, a $17 million, 50,000-square-foot arts complex opened in 2001 on the Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus in Baltimore, Maryland. Named for a 1975 Hopkins graduate, Christina Mattin, who donated $7.5 million to help fund the project, the Mattin Center opened the same year as the American Folk Art Museum opened in Manhattan.
Hopkins built the Mattin Center to increase its extracurricular arts offerings for students, most of whom live on campus or nearby. Trustees selected a 1.5-acre site near the main entrance to campus, adjacent to the Baltimore Museum of Art, and visible from Charles Street, the city’s main north-south thoroughfare. They selected Williams and Tsien after considering other nationally prominent architects, including Bohlin Cywinski Jackson.
The Mattin Center consists of three brick-clad buildings framing an open courtyard and housing visual art and computer rooms, a dance studio, student offices, a black box theater, individual and group music practice rooms, and a café. Students go there in their free time to take non-accredited classes in dance, theater, and the visual arts. The center won a 2002 design award from the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
Fourteen years after the project opened, a different university president, Ron Daniels, has expressed a desire to do even more to enhance student life outside classes. Hopkins does not have a traditional student union the way many campuses do. One of the administration’s goals is to build a student union or campus center by 2020 to help improve student life outside classes.
In 2014 Hopkins launched a feasibility study to help determine exactly where to build such a facility, which officials say could be one building or more than one building grouped in a student life “precinct,” near the heart of campus. The university also selected two firms to lead the study: Ann Beha Architects of Boston, to serve as architect, and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol of Seattle and Washington, D.C., to serve as landscape architect.
Campus leaders have not disclosed any decisions about the exact location for the student life project. But in announcing design team members for the study, Hopkins identified the area they are considering. That is when the Mattin Center was first publicly identified as a candidate for possible demolition or alteration. “The area encompassing the Mattin Center, Whitehead Hall, the Merrick Barn, and the new Brody Learning [Commons] is proposed as the site for a new Student Union/Campus Center precinct,” Hopkins’ announcement stated. “Identified as the ‘campus heart,’ this location serves as a crossroads between the traditional core of campus and the neighboring Charles Village community.”
A 2014 article about the project that appeared in the Johns Hopkins News-Letter after the university selected its design team also identified “the area in and around the Mattin Center and in the vicinity of the Brody Learning Commons” as “the focus of a broader ‘student union/campus center’ feasibility study.” The article said campus officials asked the designers to prepare “three basic options for the site, including rough cost estimates.” It said officials will be evaluating a range of possibilities, from razing existing buildings to modifying the Mattin Center and possibly enclosing the courtyard” defined by its three structures.
In the News-Letter article, university architect Jim Miller indicated there is a strong likelihood that the Mattin Center would be altered to some degree. “At the end of the day, we can’t leave the Mattin Center exactly as it is and succeed,” Miller was quoted as saying.
Dennis O’Shea, executive director for media relations and crisis communications at Hopkins, said in March that university officials did not want to discuss the project beyond the information they previously provided. In an email, he said the study is “on hold” at present but indicated that it will be “revved up” again to meet the president’s goals. “From our point of view, this wouldn’t be the time to talk about it,” O’Shea said in his message.
Sandra Sparks, president of the Charles Village Civic Association, which represents the community that adjoins the Homewood campus closest to Mattin Center, said Hopkins officials have informed community leaders that the university has a new project in the works but that she has not been invited to attend any meetings about it.
Sparks, who was involved in the planning for the Mattin Center, said she believes the Williams and Tsien buildings have not been successful from the community’s standpoint. She said the buildings were designed at a time when Hopkins planners wanted campus buildings to face inward and away from the neighboring community. Today, she said, the current administration has been making efforts to strengthen connections between the campus and surrounding neighborhoods, and its latest projects reflect that. Because it turns its back on the community and presents a wall to Charles Street, she said, Mattin Center reflects the planning philosophy of a previous administration and campus planners who are no longer making decisions at Hopkins.
“It represents the end of an era when the university faced inward and was moving very gingerly to interact with the community,” said Sparks of Mattin Center. “I think they found that it just didn’t work. It never addressed Charles Street. It never was designed to welcome the community. It’s a prominent site. I think they just found the space is not serving them well. It doesn’t serve the university or the community the way the location could. I just think Mattin Center doesn’t address what they need on many levels.”