The Spring House, an early 19th-century milk storage building that was moved in 1932 from a North Baltimore estate to the grounds the Baltimore Museum of Art, will serve as the venue for the museum’s new video and film series called “Screen House.” Photo courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Art.
The Spring House, an early 19th-century milk storage building that was moved in 1932 from a North Baltimore estate to the grounds the Baltimore Museum of Art, will serve as the venue for the museum’s new video and film series called “Screen House.” Photo courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Art.

The Spring House at the Baltimore Museum of Art will soon house The Screen House, Baltimore’s newest — and oldest — tiny theater.

The historic building is a Greek Revival structure that started as a “dairy” used to keep milk cool on an estate in North Baltimore and was tended by enslaved people before it was moved to the museum’s grounds in 1932.

Dating from around 1815 and visible from Art Museum Drive just west of the main museum, it’s one of the only works in Maryland designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, known as the “father of American architecture,” who also designed the Basilica of the Assumption and the United States Capitol. It’s considered one of the purest surviving examples of neo-classical architecture in the state.

Although the Spring House has been featured on architectural tours and the museum has used it over the years for presentations such as Kota Ezawa’s ‘National Anthem’ animated video last year, it hasn’t been continuously open to museum goers or the general public.

But this summer the former spring house is getting a new life as a “house for new media” at the museum.

Starting on Aug. 4, the Spring House will be the venue for a new series called “Screen House” that will feature works by video and film artists exploring issues concerning Baltimore and its residents.

According to the museum, the Spring House will be a space “to interrogate history, reimagine familiar stories, and reclaim joy and creativity.”

Each work, the museum says, “considers places and spaces with troubling pasts shaped by histories of forced labor, plunder and colonization, and war” – not unlike the relocated Spring House itself.

“The Screen House series is part of the BMA’s ongoing commitment to examining objects in our collection that represent challenging and sometimes traumatic histories. We see it as essential to bring these narratives forward through different perspectives and voices and in ways that provoke active discussion,” said Christopher Bedford, the museum’s Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director, in a statement.

The Screen House series builds on the museum’s previous Screening Room digital programming as a means of further supporting the local artist community, Bedford said.

“We are looking forward to sharing the incredible work of the featured artists, who so beautifully and inspiringly speak to critical subjects of social, political, and historic importance,” he said.

The videos will be projected on a continuous loop inside the Spring House during the museum’s hours of operation, and most of the participating artists have connections to Baltimore.

Artists and films included in the initial presentation, on view from Aug. 4-29, are Tom Boram and Jackie Milad’s 2020 film “Yalla Simsim (يلا سمسم)”; Ariel René Jackson’s 2019 film “Bentonville Forecast: In the Square.”; and Ada Pinkston’s 2018 film “LandMarked Part 5: A Tribute to Fannie Lou Hamer.”

Future screenings will feature TT the Artist’s 2020 film “Dark City Beneath the Beat,” from Sept. 1-26′ and Kandis Williams’s 2020 film “Annexation Tango,” from Sept. 29-Oct. 31.

The curators are Carlyn Thomas, BMA Curatorial Assistant for Contemporary Art, and Leila Grothe, BMA Associate Curator of Contemporary Art.

A refrigerator before electricity

A spring house is a small, free-standing structure that uses spring water to keep crocks of milk and other dairy products cool. In the 1800s, spring houses essentially served as refrigerators before electricity was available. They were typically constructed near the main house of a large estate, along with an ice house.

The BMA’s Spring House is one of several structures that Latrobe designed for Robert Goodloe Harper’s country house, “Oakland,” near what is now Roland Park. Originally known as the Goodloe Harper Spring House or the Oakland Spring House, the structure has four columns, plaster walls, wood trim, a brick floor and troughs on three sides where spring water was channeled to keep containers of milk cool.

The Spring House was given to the BMA by Baltimore attorney W. J. O’Brien in 1932 and moved to the museum grounds that year. John Russell Pope, architect for the museum’s 1929 main building, was instrumental in determining its location and thwarted proposals to increase its size.

When it first was moved to the museum grounds, the Spring House was used to display architectural artifacts but electricity was not installed right away, limiting its use. From the 1970s to 2002, it became increasingly deteriorated and its interior was off limits to the public.

The building was conserved in 2002, in an $87,000 project designed to address deterioration and restore the exterior to its original appearance. The restoration architect was Peter Pearre. It has been used periodically since then as space for programs and exhibits, including exhibits of works by Baltimore artists Richard Cleaver in 2005 and Oletha DeVane in 2019, a sound and light installation by Ann Veronica Janssens in 2018, and last year’s Ezawa video, a meditation on patriotism and protest shown in the midst of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

The restored Spring House is one of the largest artifacts in the museum’s collection and even has its own accessions number (BMA 1932.25.1). It proved valuable last year when the main building was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and directors wanted to offer visitors more outdoor experiences on its campus. The Snow Cone Sisters snack kiosk from Gertrude’s Chesapeake Kitchen was another example of that thinking, and it’s open again this summer.

According to Anne Brown, the museum’s senior director of communications, the building’s name isn’t changing from Spring House to Screen House, but that will literally be its use. Besides providing an outdoor experience, she said, using the Spring House as a screening room reflects an effort by the museum to activate underutilized spaces.

Brown said the Spring House can accommodate three people at a time and the films are short, so people can go in and watch them and then free up space for others. Because the Spring House isn’t heated, she said, its use as a home for new media will be seasonal.

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Ed Gunts

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