The glass pyramid atop the National Aquarium at the Inner Harbor is among the best-known features of Baltimore’s skyline.
The glass pyramid atop the National Aquarium at the Inner Harbor is among the best-known features of Baltimore’s skyline.

The 40-year old pyramid roof of the National Aquarium in Baltimore is failing and in need of an $8 million replacement, becoming the second prominent glass feature of the city’s skyline to get an overhaul.

Aquarium operators are piecing together government and private funding to replace each of the 684 panes that make up the ceiling. The project gained urgency after reports in 2019 of glass falling from the Upland Tropical Rain Forest exhibit covered by the pyramid.

Aquarium officials say manufacturers need to start fabricating replacement glass this summer, to be ready for installation during seasonable temperatures in 2022. Along with the Domino Sugars sign, now being refurbished, it will become the second Baltimore waterfront landmark getting an overhaul.

Details about the color, finish and technology aspects of the new glass panes — such as whether they will be designed to deter birds — have not been disclosed.

The need for funds was spelled out in a report submitted to state legislators by Maryland’s Department of Budget and Management and the aquarium, citing aquarium senior vice president and chief mission officer Jennifer Driban and president and CEO John Racanelli as project contacts. The report put the cost of repairs at $7.75 million. The original aquarium cost $21.3 million when it opened in 1981.

“Since a glass failure in 2019, this project has been our number one capital priority,” the report said. “The project must be completed as soon as possible to avoid closing the exhibit indefinitely.”

The report attributed the falling glass to the age of the building, which will mark its 40th anniversary on August 8.

“After 40 years, the glazing that makes up the rain forest pyramid has failed,” the report said. “It must be replaced to ensure the safety of guests, staff and animals in the exhibit. Further delays to this project will result in having to take the entire exhibit – one of our most iconic – offline for an indefinite period.”

Public safety was also cited in a funding request to Baltimore’s Board of Estimates.

Funds are needed “to address safety concerns in the Rain Forest exhibit at the National Aquarium which must replace the entire iconic Rain Forest glass pyramid,” according to a statement sent last fall by the city’s Department of Planning. “All 684 panes must be replaced as soon as possible or the National Aquarium may need to close the exhibit indefinitely.”

The building on Pier 3 is owned by the city of Baltimore but operated by the non-profit aquarium organization, which also runs the Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4.

Kim Lacomare, the aquarium’s vice president of communications, said repairs will be paid for with a combination of public and private funds, with construction hopefully starting in early 2022.

“The National Aquarium is working diligently to address critical capital needs in our 40-year-old facility including a plan to replace the original, ironic glass pyramid above the rain forest exhibit,” Lacomare said in an email message. “The double pane glass that makes up the rain forest pyramid has surpassed its usable life and must be replaced as soon as possible to ensure the safety of our guests, staff and animals.”

According to the report to state legislators, the project will take a year from fabrication of the glass to installation. The schedule calls for fabrication of the glass to occur from July to December of this year and installation between March and June of 2022, leaving a break for cold weather in January and February. Architects and engineers have been hired and a seven-month design period began in November, the report said. The aquarium needs 14,900 net square feet of glass for the rainforest exhibit, according to a worksheet submitted with the report.

Maryland’s General Assembly is the major source of funds for the project, providing $5 million in its 2020 session and another $2 million in the capital budget that was approved this year, according to Matthew Klein, Capital Budget Manager in the state’s Department of Legislative Services. Another $1 million was approved in the state’s fiscal 2020 budget to replace glass in a smaller second pyramid over the “harbor overlook room” on Pier 3.

Baltimore’s Board of Estimates last year allocated $250,000 for the “Aquarium Glass Pyramid Repair” project after members received a warning about safety conditions at the Inner Harbor attraction. The $250,000 is coming from a Community and Economic Development loan approved by city voters.

In addition, Baltimore’s Planning Commission is recommending that the city allocate another $200,000 for the glass replacement project as part of the city’s Capital Improvement Program budget for fiscal 2022 and 2023. The money would come from the Mayor’s Cultural Fund budget for those years. Still another $300,000 is expected to come from private donations.

Lacomare did not answer questions about how many panes have cracked or fallen out, whether any people or animals have been hurt by falling glass, or what steps the aquarium is taking to protect guests, staff, volunteers or anyone walking on Pier 3.

According to the report on file with the General Assembly, the aquarium had planned to start work in early 2020 but the project was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Prior to the pandemic, the Aquarium planned to complete construction on this urgent project in FY 2021,” the report said. “However, the pandemic resulted in an unexpected $20 million in lost revenue and it is no longer financially possible for the institution to close the $2.5 million budget gap with its own resources or take on additional debt.”

If the aquarium can’t secure funds in time to start making new glass panes this year, it will miss a short “window” of opportunity to start the repairs early next year, the report warned.

“To ensure the welfare of the plants and animals in the rain forest exhibit, construction can only take place during the warmer weather months and we have a short window to begin construction,” the report said.

This is the second construction project that will bring changes to Baltimore’s skyline, after Domino Sugar’s $2 million initiative to replace its giant neon sign with an LED version that will mimic the original.

Work on the Domino’s sign replacement is currently underway and expected to be complete by July. It also was prompted by broken glass – in Domino’s case, the sections of neon-filled glass tubing that make up the letters and tended to break. LED lighting was selected as a replacement, company officials have said, because it’s more durable and more energy-efficient than brittle neon lights.

The aquarium was designed by Cambridge Seven Associates to take visitors on a metaphorical global journey from the bottom of the ocean to the treetops of a South American rain forest, seven stories above Pier 3. It draws 1.2 million visitors in a typical year.

The rooftop exhibit is an immersive recreation of a South American rain forest, which the aquarium calls “one of the most biologically diverse – and rapidly disappearing — habitats on Earth.” It has a capacity of 2,700 visitors a day. Visitors can see tropical birds such as the Blue-Crowned Motmot, two-toed sloths and golden lion tamarin monkeys along with thousands of tropical plants.

When the building opened in 1981, the National Aquarium was one the first aquatic museums anywhere to give a land-oriented exhibit as much prominence as water-based exhibits. The rooftop pyramid is one of the elements that make the aquarium a sculptural centerpiece for Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, along with the building’s colorful graphics and snub-nosed south end. The pyramid motif was repeated with another pyramid when the aquarium later built its Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4.

Since 1981, there have been many advances in glass technology that are designed to help glass last longer and work better as thermal barriers. Inventors have also created “bird-friendly” glass with ‘frit’ patterns that prevent birds from flying into glass panes. Peter Kuttner, a principal at Cambridge Seven, said he wasn’t aware of the glass replacement project and didn’t believe Cambridge Seven was consulted about it.

The worksheet presented to state legislators indicates that only the glass is being replaced, not the entire pyramidal frame that supports the glass. That’s a sign the roof’s distinctive shape isn’t likely to change.

Lacomore declined to say what designers and fabricators the aquarium is working with on the glass replacement project or what percentage of minority or women-owned firms have been hired. She declined to release any renderings of the project or say whether the aquarium intends to replicate the way the pyramid looks now, as Domino Sugar is replicating its original sign, or make changes that incorporate advances in glass technology or deviate from the current blue-green tint of the existing glass.

Lacomare also declined to say whether the rainforest exhibit or other parts of the building would have to close while the work is underway or how the birds and other animals that live there now would be affected during construction.

Despite its prominent location within the Inner Harbor renewal area and visibility on the skyline, the glass replacement project has not been reviewed in a public session by the city’s Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel. UDAAP has reviewed some other changes proposed for the aquarium, including a plan for “wetlands” around Piers 3 and 4.

Another source of funding for the glass replacement is the Abell Foundation, which has committed $100,000 to the project. In a list of grants it has made in 2021, Abell cited the aquarium’s mission, reputation and economic impact as reasons for providing support.

The National Aquarium “is consistently ranked as one of the nation’s top three aquariums, housing 20,000 fishes and animals in award-winning habitats,” Abell’s project description stated. “As Maryland’s largest paid tourist attraction, the Aquarium is an economic driver for Baltimore City and state.”

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Ed Gunts

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