Doors Open Baltimore becomes a virtual event for 2020

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Rawlings Conservatory is one site that has opened up for tours during Open Doors Baltimore. Photo by Patrick Gillespie, via Flickr.

Doors Open Baltimore, a free annual event that gives people a chance to visit places that are usually off-limits to the public, is the latest local activity to go virtual for 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Organizers of the popular citywide festival announced this week that they decided to make Doors Open a virtual event this year because of uncertainty over holding in-person events and concerns about potential health risks to participants, including volunteers who greet visitors at every featured location.

Instead of reserving the first weekend in October for open houses and in-person tours of buildings and neighborhoods, organizers say they’ll present virtual programs all month, with a different theme every week. Besides live virtual on-location tours, the new format will include sketching workshops, trivia nights and a kick-off lecture, all virtual, and a photo contest.

The Doors Open Baltimore weekend is a highlight of the annual Architecture Month activities organized by the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Baltimore Architecture Foundation, with Baltimore Heritage as a partner. The weekend usually attracts thousands of participants, including many who tour by bike.

Nathan Dennies, associate director of the Baltimore Architecture Foundation, said the Doors Open planning committee had been preparing for an in-person event again this year in the hopes that there would be more certainty about the health crisis and public gatherings as October approached. But “it’s already now almost July and there’s still uncertainty about what’s going to happen in October,” he said.

The committee members ultimately decided to focus on planning a virtual event and make it as engaging and educational as they can, he said.

“We thought it would be best to just say we’re going to be doing a virtual program and put all of our effort into making that as high-quality as possible,” he said. “It helps us with our sites, too, so everyone who’s participating knows exactly what’s going on.”

This is the seventh year for Baltimore’s Doors Open event, which highlights approximately 60 locations in all parts of the city over a two-day period.

In past years, the event has given participants an early look at the conversion to apartments of 10 Light Street, the former Maryland National Bank tower; the ongoing restoration of Clifton Mansion, the former estate of Johns Hopkins, and the inner workings of the Eastern Avenue Pumping Station near the Inner Harbor. Some of the best-attended stops have been micro-breweries and food-oriented sites that offer samples for those taking a tour.

Doors Open joins a growing list of local fairs and festivals that have been cancelled or postponed because of concerns about public gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the Flower Mart, HonFest, Artscape and Hampdenfest.

New York City’s equivalent of Doors Open Baltimore, Open House New York, also decided to adopt a digital platform this year and feature video tours of significant buildings, online panel discussions and online book talks that celebrate the city. “We are excited to see how a digital platform can help us expand our audience and tell stories in a new way,” said OHNY executive director Gregory Wessner.

Dennies said it may have been possible to present Doors Open as an in-person event by limiting the number of visitors at any given site, but planners were worried about what limitations might be necessary and how that might affect the event.

“Some of those places will get hundreds of people going into their building, and others will get maybe a couple of dozen,” he said. “There’s so much variance that it would have been far too complicated to try to figure out a way to make this work, and it would really hurt the experience of the event, too, to have to try to find a way to work around restrictions.”

Dennies said organizers believe they can offer virtual tours that give people a chance to learn about places they don’t usually get to visit. In some cases, he said, they’re planning to show views of “inaccessible” spaces that people couldn’t get to even if they did go inside a building, such as the view from the top of City Hall’s dome.

There are also plans to use 3-D scanning to create three-dimensional models of building interiors that people can view, he said. “Doing it virtually gives us some more leeway” to show places that otherwise may be too dangerous to visit or too private or still under construction, he explained.

One advantage of offering virtual tours, Dennies said, is that people from all over the world will be able to see them, and there will be no long lines or sold-out tours. After the tour is held the first time, he said, the AIA and BAF will have a library of virtual tours available for viewing on YouTube.

Although the event will be free, Dennies said, participants will be required to register to take part in the virtual tours, which will be hosted live on Zoom and Facebook. He said more information about the lineup and logistics for Doors Open 2020 will be available closer to October, on the Doors Open website, and planners are hoping to return to an in-person event on the first weekend of October in 2021.

Ed Gunts

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