The glass pyramid atop the National Aquarium at the Inner Harbor will be repaired and replaced next year.

The National Aquarium will look different after contractors replace the glass panes in the pyramid-shaped roof over its Upland Tropical Rain Forest exhibit next year.

Besides getting 684 new panes of glass, the rooftop enclosure will be illuminated with high-efficiency LED lighting that traces and accentuates the outline of the pyramid.

The main color of the lights will be blue, to match the blue wave on the south end of the 1981 building on Pier 3. The aquarium is also aiming to have the lights turn orange, during the Orioles’ season, and purple, for the Ravens.

Aquarium president and CEO John Racanelli notes that a similar lighting effect has been implemented at the Tennessee Aquarium, which was designed by the same architect and has four glass pyramids on its roof, all outlined with LED (Light Emitting Diode) lighting.

The Tennessee Aquarium. Photo credit: The Tennessee Aquarium.

“It’s a nice effect,” he said. “It’s subtle, but it draws the eye.”

The illumination plan makes the aquarium the second harbor landmark to get new lights on the skyline. Domino Sugar is replacing its neon sign with LED lighting in a $2 million renovation that started in March and is scheduled for completion by July.

The aquarium is in the final stages of securing funds for its roof upgrade, which is expected to begin with the fabrication of the replacement glass later this year. Actual construction is slated to get underway next March, weather permitting, and be completed by the summer or fall.

The project has been in the works for years but gained new urgency after one pane shattered in 2019. No people or animals have been injured, and the aquarium has installed a ballistic cloth barrier with a netting sewn in to catch any other glass that might fall and otherwise protect visitors until repairs are complete, so the exhibit can remain open and people can go through safely.

The project’s estimated cost is $7.75 million. Maryland’s General Assembly allocated $2 million for the project this spring, bringing the state’s total contribution to $7 million. The city of Baltimore is contributing $450,000; the Abell Foundation is giving $100,000 and others have made individual donations.

Here are more facts about the project:

The Rain Forest exhibit will remain: The pyramid will continue to enclose the aquarium’s Upland Tropical Rain Forest exhibit, an immersive environment designed to simulate the effect of being in the treetops of a South American rain forest, with birds, plants and other specimens native to that continent.

Preservation-oriented approach: The original steel pyramid structure isn’t being replaced along with the glass, so the shape of the roof won’t change. In many respects, the aquarium is taking a preservation-oriented approach to the architecture.

Besides adding lights and state-of-the-art safety glass, Racanelli said, the aquarium’s goal is for the building to look more or less the same as it does now. “This is the kind of invisible improvement you have to do in a major public facility like ours in order for it to remain at a world-class standard.” 

No interruption to animal sleep patterns: The LED lights won’t interfere with the sleep patterns of the animals in the exhibit. Because the strips of LED lighting will be installed on the exterior of the pyramid, they will only shine outward, and the colored lights won’t be visible from inside.

The Rain Forest exhibit space will have the same low-level night lighting that it always has had, so the birds and animals inside won’t notice a change that could interrupt their nocturnal habits or activities. They will still be able to sense the rhythm of day turning to night and back to day.

Bird-friendly glass: All of the replacement glass will be “bird-friendly,” meaning it will have a “frit’ pattern on it that’s designed to prevent birds from flying into the glass. The frit pattern won’t adversely affect an aquarium visitor’s ability to look out over Baltimore’s harbor, but it will give the pyramid a somewhat frosted appearance that makes it slightly more difficult to see in. That’s consistent with the strategy of making the glass bird-safe. 

A first for the aquarium and a model for others: Racanelli said the aquarium has already begun to make some of its glass bird-safe, in the wing Australia: Wild Extremes and at the entrance, but this is the first time it will etch a pattern into the glass itself rather than apply dot patterns to a glass surface that’s already in place. “We think the building can be a really good example of how you can make a glass structure bird-friendly and lose nothing in terms of vision or aesthetics,” he said.   

Different specifications for the glass: In its composition, the replacement glass will take advantage of changes in glass technology over the past 40 years. It will be made to higher standards and will provide better insulation than the current glass. Also, unlike the existing glass, the new panes won’t contain nickel, a transition metal that may have contributed to the glass failure.

Work won’t necessitate closing or taking down the Rain Forest exhibit: The construction activity will be carried out in a way that won’t require the aquarium to temporarily close the Rain Forest exhibit or any part of the attraction while work is underway.

The process calls for a limited number of panes to be replaced on any given day, and then for the building to be closed up every night. Exotic birds in the exhibit won’t be able to fly out because of a “bird screen” that has always been in place to prevent birds from getting into the rafters.

Local companies leading the effort: The aquarium has hired two local firms to lead the construction effort. Design Collective Inc. is the architect and Plano-Coudon Construction is the lead contractor. The same team led the effort to build the aquarium’s Animal Care and Rescue Center at 901 East Fayette Street. A manufacturer for the glass has not been announced.

No glass souvenirs: The original glass likely won’t be sold as souvenirs the way the D in the Domino Sugars sign is being cut up in sections and sold to raise funds for the Baltimore Museum of Industry or given to employees as souvenirs.

Racanelli said the panes of safety glass from the pyramid are four feet by four feet in size, deteriorated, and difficult to cut down without splintering into tiny fragments. He said the aquarium plans to create a separate glass panel that will feature the names of donors and will be on permanent display in or near the Rain Forest exhibit.

 A way to mark the aquarium’s 40th anniversary: The aquarium may use the start of glass fabrication as a way to mark the 40thanniversary of its opening on August 8, 1981, since the work will start around the same time.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on crowd gatherings, the aquarium can’t have a large event to mark its anniversary but it can acknowledge the start of work on the roof repairs, Racanelli said: “The celebration of our 40th year and entering into the next years, the next decade, starts with this important improvement.”

Racanelli said the aquarium was a pioneering project when it opened and he believes the current staff has an obligation to serve as its steward and keep it in the best possible condition.

“It is a responsibility that we take very seriously,” he said.

Click here for Ed Gunts’s comprehensive Q&A with John Racanelli about aquarium improvements.

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Ed Gunts

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