Jewish Historical Society plans expansion


June 23, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

The corner of Lloyd and Watson streets is not on the route most tourists take when they visit Baltimore. It's too far north to be considered part of the waterfront and too far east to be part of Museum Row.

But it's where the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland has been for nearly 35 years -- and where it plans to stay.

This summer, the society is getting ready to double the size of its library and museum at 15 Lloyd St.

Board members have launched a campaign to raise $2.5 million to build the addition and establish a $1 million endowment.

The expansion is a sign that the society is succeeding in its mission to document and celebrate Jewish life in Maryland.

The fund drive, which already has raised $600,000, is also an indication of the organization's commitment to improve its East Baltimore neighborhood, where Jewish immigrants first lived when they moved to Maryland in the 1800s.

"We've put down roots here," said Jewish Historical Society Director Bernard Fishman. "This was the beginning of the Jewish community in Baltimore. This was the beginning of roughly a century of Jewish life."

In many ways, the neighborhood is part of the museum's subject matter, he explained. "We're studying and memorializing and commemorating people who were part of the city. We're a museum of urban people, who have only recently become suburban. The city is what brought many Jews here and led to their success. It's where we should be."

The society was formed in 1960 by volunteers who came together to save the 1845 Lloyd Street Synagogue, which was threatened with demolition. From 1964 to 1965, the society spent $125,000 to preserve the Greek Revival landmark, designed by Robert Cary Long Jr. It stands today as the oldest Jewish synagogue in Maryland and the third oldest in the United States.

Next, the society saved the B'nai Israel Synagogue 150 feet to the south. It was restored from 1982 to 1987 at a cost of $500,000.

In 1986, the society moved into a freestanding museum and library between the two synagogues. Through changing exhibits and a variety of educational and research programs, its staff of 14 seeks to keep Jewish heritage alive. Last year, the center drew 12,000 visitors, including people from 40 states and 15 foreign countries.

Current exhibits are: "Now I See Kiev in My Dreams," a photo exhibit about Russian immigrants, and "Fertile Ground: Two Hundred Years of Jewish Life in Baltimore."

Even the staff's work area is loaded with artifacts. They range from a 1942 menu of the old Nate's and Leon's restaurant to a gilded and painted wood sculpture of lions and stone tablets, salvaged from the Torah Ark of the recently closed Rogers Avenue Synagogue.

Mr. Fishman said the museum has the largest collection of Jewish artifacts and documents in Maryland. "In the last year alone, we acquired 110,000 documents," he said.

"We're the leading Jewish organization in the country concerned with historic preservation of Jewish buildings. We're the only one that has saved not just one but two Jewish synagogues."

Preliminary plans call for construction of a two-story structure on the east side of the 1986 building, on a parking lot accessible from Watson Street. It would provide a new orientation and exhibit space on the first level, and additional archive space on the second. Kann & Associates of Baltimore has done the preliminary design work on a pro bono basis. The goal is to begin construction in 1996.

Mr. Fishman says changes in the neighborhood should benefit

the museum. He points to the Metro station under construction near the Shot Tower, the state's plan to build an African American museum at Pratt and President streets, and the city's plan to tear down the Lafayette Courts public housing towers.

"This area is close enough to the harbor that, if other conditions were right, it could be strongly revitalized," he said. "In time, I think that will happen."

Donna's at the BMA

The Baltimore Museum of Art is changing its restaurateur in time for the mid-October opening of its New Wing for Modern Art. Donna's at the BMA, an affiliate of the Donna's restaurants in Mount Vernon and Towson, is scheduled to replace the Museum Cafe.

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