Fourteen years after opening the $17 million Mattin Center arts complex to increase extracurricular offerings for students on its Homewood campus, the Johns Hopkins University is exploring plans to build a $100 million student center in roughly the same location.
The new project, envisioned as a way to boost the appeal of the campus to prospective students, could mean the end of the three-building brick complex.
How is it that Mattin, with its dance and visual arts studios, digital media center, black-box theater, music practice rooms, outdoor cafe and fountain, failed to deliver the pizazz that it promised 14 years ago – to the point where it potentially could be demolished?
Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels has been reluctant to discuss their plans for the area publicly, saying no final decisions have been made.
“It’s a $100 million project – we need a donor,” Daniels responded when asked about his intentions earlier this spring. “Everything is up in the air.”
Lacking Curb Appeal
But the university’s plans have been an open secret around town, after Hopkins selected designers for the new project, and community leaders have some ideas about why Mattin may be considered expendable.
To Sandy Sparks, president of the Charles Village Civic Association, the Mattin Center, built under Daniels’ predecessor, William R. Brody, was too much of a fortress walled off from the community.
“It represents the end of an era when the university faced inward and was moving very gingerly to interact with the community,” said Sparks.
Built on a prominent site on Charles Street just above Art Museum Drive, but with its three buildings oriented around an inner courtyard, the center doesn’t serve the university or the community the way the location could, she said.
“I think they found that it just didn’t work,” she said. “It never addressed Charles Street. It never was designed to welcome the community.”
Planning Started in 2013
Hopkins’ Homewood campus does not have a traditional student union, as many campuses do, to serve as a meeting place for students and house campus organizations.
According to Hopkins planners, the proposed project would most likely be a hybrid between a student union and a student center containing a wide range of activities for students outside classes. They say it could be one building or more than one building, grouped in a student life “precinct” near the heart of campus.
Planning for the new student center at Hopkins started in 2013 with a campus task force. Last year, Hopkins selected an architect and landscape architect to conduct a feasibility study to help determine where to build the student center and develop cost estimates.
The selected designers are Ann Beha Architects of Boston as the architect and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol of Seattle as the landscape architect.
In an announcement about the design team members on a university web site, Hopkins officials described the general area under consideration for the student life project. That is where the Mattin Center was first publicly identified as a candidate for possible demolition.
“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.
“This location serves as a crossroads between the traditional core of campus and the neighboring Charles Village community,” the announcement stated.
Funded by Hopkins Alumni
Occupying 1.5 acres, the Mattin Center was designed by the prominent New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien and consists of three brick-clad buildings framing an open courtyard.
Students use practice rooms and studios there and take credit and 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. James Dilts, co-author of A Guide to Baltimore Architecture, has praised Mattin Center as one of the best campus projects to open in Baltimore in the past two decades.
The facility was built with support from a 1987 graduate, Christina Mattin, who gave $7.5 million for it.
Real estate developer and Hopkins graduate Richard Swirnow and his wife, Rae, helped fund the black box theater, which bears their names.
“Cannot Leave Mattin as is”
The breadth of the changes university administrators are contemplating was conveyed in a 2014 article in The Johns Hopkins News-Letter.
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” framed 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.
This is not the first time Williams and Tsien have seen a project of theirs faced with demolition.
Last year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York demolished another building they designed, the American Folk Art Museum on West 53rd Street in Manhattan, to make way for an expansion. The Folk Art museum also opened in 2001, and its demolition was one of the biggest preservation controversies in the nation in 2014.
Octavia Giovannini, a spokesperson for Williams and Tsien, said the architects are “somewhat aware” of what Hopkins has been doing, but the principals didn’t want to comment without getting more information from the university. She declined to say whether Williams and Tsien were given an opportunity to compete to work on the new project.