Museum of Industry grins while it grows $3.5 million expansion: Already "better than the Smithsonian," the museum on Key Highway is adding 10,000 square feet of exhibits.

November 02, 1995|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Museum of Industry -- the Key Highway gem that celebrates a bygone, working-class city of oyster packers and printers, garment makers and machinists -- plans to bring a whole lot more of the past back to the future.

The museum is embarking on a $3.5 million renovation and expansion that will add 10,000 square feet of exhibits: a foundry and blacksmith shop, a sheet metal exhibit, a Depression-era radio station, a print shop, a 100-seat theater, a powerhouse and steam engine, a bigger garment shop and an industrial streetscape. Outside, by summer, the museum plans to have in place a 500-seat, open-air pavilion for concerts and other events; an adjoining waterside park; and a brick entrance plaza linked to the 6 1/2 -mile Canton-Locust Point Harborwalk promenade.

A neighboring four-story brick building that the museum purchased from Hercules Shipbuilding Co. for $650,000 will house a Center for Career and Technology Education to train schoolteachers, a conference and research center and administrative offices now inside the museum's main building, a former oyster cannery built in 1865.

The museum, which has raised $2.3 million of the $3.5 million from public and private sources after formally kicking off its campaign in July, hopes to complete the project in phases over the next three years. It comes in anticipation of a higher profile and a hefty increase in visitors: With the promenade's completion, Key Highway's construction crews and craters will soon disappear to be replaced by a new, user-friendly southern gateway to the city.

The 17-year-old museum always has been and will continue to be decidedly un-museumlike in many respects, says Dennis M. Zembala, its director.

Strolling past the museum's version of the old George Bunting pharmacy and soda fountain that stood on North Avenue, authentic right down to the marble counter, chrome and stainless steel fixtures and endless rows of colored glass bottles, Dr. Zembala wants to establish right off that, yes, this is all educational and vital. But it's also fun, and meant to be, much more than the more famous museum in that capital city of monuments -- what's its name? -- just south of here.

"I want to hereby give notice that we are better than the Smithsonian because there, you can't touch the exhibit, and here you can touch it, and it's interesting, it's innovative and it's all from Baltimore," says Dr. Zembala.

Inside this wondrous time warp, nothing comes from too far away, and everything's close enough to touch. Here, a few miles and decades removed from the glitz of Harborplace and its modern attractions, visitors shuck, pack and can oysters (real shells glued together, fake bivalves), work on an assembly line, fire up real gaslights, operate the printing press.

The foot-wide wooden floorboards, soaked by millions of wet oysters, creak beneath your feet. Paint peels from the battered walls of the musty rooms. Each year, 60,000 schoolchildren learn history as textbooks alone could never teach it. Another 60,000 visitors come from throughout the world to see the life of the workingman -- and woman and child. (The haunting, life-size pictures of 12-year-olds doing hard manual labor stick with visitors long after they leave.)

It's pure Baltimore

To locals, there's a distinctly familiar feel: This is your life, or your parents' or your grandparents' perhaps. To out-of-towners, there's nothing generic about it. It's pure Baltimore.

Stroll through the decades. Check out the works-in-progress inside Holzapfer Violin Shop, West Fayette Street, circa 1908. Imagine the American Oil Co.'s horse-drawn wooden cart, with red wheels and a slick green body, pulling up to your house. Marvel at Ottmar Mergenthaler's genius that created a "line o' type" here all at once for the first time, giving the world the Linotype.

Crank out a handbill or "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the working press. Flick on the gaslights, like the first ones in the nation, in Baltimore. Step into the musty Baltimore garment shop full of mannequins and see if you, too, can cut through 20 layers of cloth with those oversized scissors. Imagine life as it was in the typical Baltimore living room of the 1930s -- red vinyl chair, wind-up phonograph, small table, radio, the essentials. "Here, you could listen to the radio and read your newspaper at the same time," the sign says.

Coming attractions will maintain the hometown theme and the please-touch policy. The street scene will re-create a West Baltimore industrial area, with windows opening onto an alley between two loft buildings housing garment and printing shops. The sheet metal exhibit will offer a walk along re-created rooftops highlighting skylights, vents and roofing fixtures few ever see.

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