Cannons, Cheers and a Customized Cake Help Dedicate New Visitor Center at Fort McHenry National Monument

This cake with a working cannon helped open the new visitor center with a literal "bang." NPS photo.

Ribbon cutting ceremonies for new buildings are commonplace, but the dedication of a new visitor center for Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore on March 3, 2011, included plenty of unique touches. Among them was a customized bakery creation that proved you can have your cake and shoot it too.

Given the history of the fort, it's appropriate that the event included deep drum rolls and cannon fire that could be heard a mile away, and when organizers decided to include music by a local choir, the choice of a song seemed pretty obvious. This performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by the City College Choir occurred on the 80th anniversary of the formal adoption of the composition as country's official national anthem.

The most unique element of the event was a huge cake, created by Charm City Cakes, famous for the television program “Ace of Cakes.” Shaped like an artillery piece, this was more than just a fancy snack.

“It not only feeds 500 people but shoots too—after you fire it, you can eat it,” says Jim Bailey, park ranger at Fort McHenry. Firing the cake signaled the grand opening, with the confection's firecracker bouncing off the front door and showering sparks to the delight of visitors.

“This is a momentous occasion – the culmination of years of hard work by so many people,” said Superintendent Gay Vietzke. “City College Choir did an outstanding job singing the national anthem and the Baltimore Marching Ravens Pep Band got everybody excited.”

“The building symbolically represents the stripes on the flag and initiates a visual dialogue between the visitor and the fort,” says Alan Reed, the building’s designer and architect with GWWO Architects.

The new 17,655-square-foot facility provides the visitor with a window to the past and stands as a model for the future. On target for LEED silver certification, “green” elements in the building include the use of recycled brick, native plants in landscaping, a geothermal system to heat and cool the building, and low-flush sinks and toilets.

“It’s America all the way, the exhibits are about the anthem and flag and the building itself was built by a Maryland company with materials made within 500 miles of the park,” said Vince Vaise, the park’s chief of interpretation.

In addition to the traditional history tours, special presentations on what makes a “green” building will be given every month starting in April.

“This building represents a major step forward toward the Bicentennial of the War of 1812,” said Bill Pencek, executive director of the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission.

During the course of the evening visitors explored three galleries relating to the causes of the War of 1812, the dramatic moment when Francis Scott Key was inspired to write “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and how the anthem and the flag together became the most powerful symbols of the spirit of the American people.

Touch screen monitors allowed visitors to imagine themselves as senators in 1812 and “vote” on declaring war with the British, explore Francis Scott Key’s life, and analyze the words of the National Anthem.

“It is about making connections really, connecting the past and the present, helping people connect emotionally to what happened. You are telling a story and getting young people involved is particularly important,” said Bill Haley, exhibit designer for Haley Sharpe Inc.

Visitors heard the National Anthem many times that night through both live performances and interactive screens that play various versions of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” such as those by the U.S. Marine Corps Band, Jimi Hendrix and Whitney Houston (her signature Super Bowl performance).

The greater size of the exhibit space allows for more treasures from the fort’s museum collection to be displayed, and they include some outstanding items.

“For the first time, we have the oldest known original version of Key’s poem on loan from The Maryland Historical Society at the fort, exhibited together with original cannonballs from the battle as well as an original watercolor of the bombardment painted by an eyewitness,” said Gregory Weidman, park curator.

“We wanted to give the visitor a sense of the human element,” said Vaise. On display is a sword, sash, shako, shirt, trousers all belonging to Lieutenant Reese who was wounded in the battle.

Gayle Economos has been a frequent visitor to the fort over a number of years, and she was impressed by the new movie. “It brings a tear to your eye, it really does,” she said. Using the latest in computer-generated imaging and special effects, the film's battle sequences are vivid. Visitors see the citizens of Baltimore, black and white, digging entrenchments outside the city, hear the officers of the fort yelling at their men on the gun decks, and see the Star Spangled Banner Flag wave triumphantly over the ramparts as the U.S. Naval Academy Choir sings the National Anthem.

“I have worked at Fort McHenry for almost forty-four years” says Paul Plamann, a park ranger there, “and for the first time, we got it right. There has never been a more exciting time to work here than now. I’m glad I’m part of it.”

Inspired to make a trip to Fort McHenry? You'll find information to help plan a visit on the park website.