Museum may ride into town Bicycling league negotiating for site at Federal Hill

January 05, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

A $9 million National Bicycling Museum created from a former whiskey-barrel warehouse at the foot of Federal Hill could be the next major attraction for Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

The League of American Wheelmen, a national organization with headquarters in Baltimore, is negotiating with the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp. to obtain control of the old warehouse in the 900 block of Key Highway and convert it to a museum and bicyclists' resource center by 1995.

Executive director Gilbert Clark said the league's directors last year considered proposals from three cities and selected Baltimore as their first choice for the proposed museum -- assuming that the league obtains a suitable site.

He said the directors chose Baltimore after city officials suggested that the cyclists recycle the four-story brick warehouse, which has been vacant since the 1950s and is still full of wooden racks that once held whiskey barrels.

The Abell Foundation last month gave the league a $10,000 grant to help pay for a feasibility study that will indicate whether the idea will work.

"We think it's a fabulous location, and we want to be part of an expanding museum presence in Baltimore. We also think it's appropriate to be inside an older building, because we have some history ourselves," Mr. Clark said.

"The feasibility study will tell us whether we can attract the number of people we need to be successful. If all goes well, we could be open by sometime in 1995."

For several years, the league's directors have contemplated construction of a museum that would not only display vintage bicycles but also promote bicycles as the transportation vehicle of the future, especially for urban commuters.

"It won't be just a collection of relics," said architect Jim Miller of Ziger, Hoopes & Snead, a local design firm that has developed preliminary plans for the project.

"One of the most important roles of this museum and resource center will be to educate people about bicycles and how they can help solve energy problems and traffic congestion and pollution.

"It has a great mission."

The early plans call for the first two floors of the four-story building to contain a variety of interactive exhibits on bicycling -- past, present and future. The third floor would contain an education center and library, and the top level would contain the league's offices.

"We think it has tremendous potential to attract additional people to Baltimore, because there are so many cyclists" around the country, Mr. Clark said. "We also see Baltimore as providing a tremendous base of visitors because it already has great attractions and a strong convention business. It's a win-win situation for the city and the league."

Founded in Newport, R.I., in 1880, the nonprofit league has 24,000 members nationwide. It moved to Baltimore from Woodlawn in 1991 and maintains a staff of 14 in Baltimore and three in New Hampshire.

The project is the second museum suggested for the foot of Federal Hill. The first is the $7.5 million American Visionary Art Museum, proposed for the old Trolley Works building at Key Highway and Covington streets.

In addition, the Baltimore Museum of Industry is several blocks to the south.

"The idea of a museum row is perfect for that area," said Rebecca Swanston, a Federal Hill resident and co-designer of the art museum.

"The two museums would be great together," said Rebecca Hoffberger, president and founder of the visionary art museum. "We're going to pull in fabulous crowds. The better they should be cycling to us. It's very '90s."

The warehouse was built as part of a distillery complex that straddled Key Highway before the Prohibition era and dates from at least 1914. Baltimore Copper Paint Co. purchased it in the 1950s but never used it. The city acquired it about 10 years ago from the paint company.

Other cities that competed with Baltimore last year to host the bicycling museum were Westfield, Mass., and Dayton, Ohio -- hometown of Wilbur and Orville Wright and the bicycle shop they ran before taking flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Mr. Clark said the league will soon advertise for marketing consultants to conduct the feasibility study. If the project is feasible, he said, the league's next step will be to develop more detailed designs and start raising funds.

"I would like to see some more folks in Baltimore step forward at this point and say they would like to have this facility here," Mr. Clark said.

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