The National Aquarium reopened its Upland Tropical Rain Forest exhibit Tuesday following an $8 million renovation, including the replacement of its glass, pyramid-shaped roof. Credit: The National Aquarium.

Mabel the hyacinth macaw is back.

So are Scout and Westley, the two-toed sloths.

They’re part of a group of about 100 creatures that have returned to their old home at the National Aquarium’s Upland Tropical Rain Forest exhibit, following an $8 million renovation.

Aquarium officials officially reopened the rooftop exhibit Tuesday and showed off improvements to the building, starting with 684 panes of energy-efficient, bird-friendly glass and exterior lights that accentuate the roof’s pyramid shape.

“This remarkable pyramid of glass has defined Baltimore’s skyline for five decades,” said aquarium President and CEO John Racanelli during a ribbon cutting ceremony. “But after 42 years of keeping the elements out and the animals in, it was time to replace the glass panels that comprise this pyramid to ensure the safety of our guests, of the animals, of our staff and everybody else.”

The LED lights that outline the roof’s frame will be able to glow purple during Ravens games, orange for Orioles games, and any other color the aquarium wants, he added.

“Finally we can join in the celebration for Ravens and Orioles mania with purple and orange highlighting,” he said.

Defining the skyline

Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson said the glass replacement work was much more than a construction project.

“It’s a roof. It’s wonderful. We’ll cut a ribbon on that. It’s excellent,” he acknowledged. “But what’s really amazing are the experiences that young children will have as they walk up this platform and see something that they will have never seen before, that will allow them to dream and think differently about the world. That’s what this project is really about.”

Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson speaks at a ribbon cutting ceremony for the National Aquarium’s newly renovated Upland Tropical Rain Forest exhibit.

Ferguson noted that it’s more difficult for a place such as the National Aquarium to raise funds to renovate an existing exhibit than pay for a new one.

“It’s easy to raise money for a brand-new exhibit,” he said. “It’s really easy to do this new, exciting thing. When you have to replace a roof, replace an HVAC system, it’s a much harder endeavor.”

Ferguson said he’s proud of the financial support for the aquarium shown by state leaders.

“The National Aquarium is integral to the 46th legislative district, Baltimore City, and the entire state of Maryland,” he said. “The aquarium’s commitment to supporting Maryland students and protecting our environment is a model for the role anchor institutions can play in our state.”

He added that the aquarium’s role as an architectural symbol for the city and state also makes it worth supporting.

“When it comes to these hard projects, these infrastructure projects, this is the perfect place for the state of Maryland to make that one-time investment” given “the impact that it’s had over the last 40 years of defining the Baltimore skyline,” he said.

“When you think about Maryland and you think of that overhead view and you envision in your mind, what do you see? You see this incredible building. And so it was just obvious that, when the replacement was necessary, this is a project that the state of Maryland could most certainly invest in and was very, very proud to do so.”

Immersive exhibit

The rooftop exhibit is an immersive recreation of a South American rain forest, and its construction marked one of the first times a terrestrial exhibit was created as part of an aquatic museum. It closed temporarily last March so aquarium officials could replace the aging glass in the pyramid structure that encloses it, after at least one pane shattered several years ago.

The glass panes hadn’t been replaced since the Pier 3 building opened in 1981 and were due for an upgrade. The new glass will help control temperatures inside the exhibit from getting too warm. It also has a permanent acid-etching that’s intended to protect migrating birds from striking the glass, provide a diffuse light for the tropical plants in the exhibit, and create an ambient nighttime glow when seen from outside. Plano Coudon Construction was the general contractor and Design Collective was the architect.

The project was made possible by a mix of public and private funds, including $7 million from the State of Maryland. Additional funds came from Baltimore City, which owns the building; Baltimore County; corporate support and the Abell Foundation. State and local officials, as well as corporate and philanthropic partners, attended the ribbon-cutting event.

The investment ensures the future of the glass pyramid for the next half-century, Racanelli told the gathering. “I’d especially like to thank Gov. Larry Hogan, Senate President Bill Ferguson, and Speaker of the House Adrienne Jones for their steadfast support of this project.”

Ibis, herons and sloths

During the glass replacement process, the animals from the Upland Tropical Rain Forest were moved out and cared for in the back-of-house spaces of the Australia: Wild Extremes exhibit and at the aquarium’s Animal Care and Rescue Center on Fayette Street.

Over the past few weeks, animal care teams have slowly returned the animals to their home, starting with the ibis, herons and sloths. For the other animals, the team used a reintroduction tool that allowed them to be in a protected space within the exhibit to reacclimate for a time before being released.

The aquarium made other improvements to the exhibit, such as replacing wood decking, putting up new wire mesh for the exhibit’s birds, building a new elevated walkway for staffers around the perimeter of the exhibit, and fixing aging ductwork, concrete and plumbing.

Mabel the hyacinth macaw sits on a perch in the National Aquarium’s newly reopened rain forest exhibit. Photo by Ed Gunts.

There are new educational graphics that help visitors understand what they’re seeing, a new habitat for turtles, and new perches for birds such as the macaw. All the materials used were first approved by the aquarium’s animal health team to ensure they were safe for every species in the exhibit.

“Though many of the changes made over these last few months may not be noticeable to the eye, they have greatly improved the environment for the animals and plants, as well as made it safer for our staff,” Racanelli said.

In keeping with its conservation mission, the aquarium worked with North Carolina-based Strategic Materials to recycle the old glass, 46 tons in all. The glass panes are being turned into cullet for use in fiberglass insulation for buildings and highway beads for reflective road striping.

Racanelli said the next big capital project at the aquarium will be work to implement its $10 million-plus “waterfront campus project,” including floating wetlands that promote healthy water, attract native species and help teach visitors about wetland ecosystems and the harbor’s connection to the ocean.

He had no news about a long-range plan to relocate the aquarium’s Atlantic bottlenose dolphins from the 1990 Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier Four to an outdoor “dolphin sanctuary” in a tropical or sub-tropical climate, a first-of-its-kind project that was announced in 2016 and has been delayed by the difficulty of finding a suitable relocation spot during the COVID-19 pandemic, among other reasons. The dolphins will be staying in Baltimore for “the foreseeable future,” he said.

Translucent quality

The new lights look crisp and straight in the dark, a contrast in form to the blue wave on the building’s south end that was switched from neon to LED lighting a decade ago. Racanelli said the default color will be blue but the color will change to reflect events such as Ravens home games, when they’ll glow purple on weekends.

One change created by the new glass is that it’s no longer possible for visitors to look out over the city as they could before, because the glass has a translucent quality that makes it seem as if the building’s surrounded by a dense fog even though it’s clear and sunny outside. Racanelli said that’s consistent with the aquarium’s goal of making the rain forest exhibit an immersive environment where visitors can focus on the exhibit’s plants and animals, not the city beyond.

Return visitors may also notice that the rain forest exhibit no longer includes the tree-top parking meter that for many years was used to raise money for conservation projects and teach kids about philanthropy in the process.

Racanelli said the aquarium’s feed-the-meter campaign consistently raised $250,000 a year but was taken out several years ago after donations dropped off to nearly zero.

Why the drop in donations?

“The kids don’t have quarters anymore,” he said. “Nobody has quarters.”

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Ed Gunts

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

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