City's glories glow with gaslight charm Museum exhibit opens: The new exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Industry allows visitors to glimpse the history and tools of the trades of companies that created some notable American firsts.

March 22, 1996|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

Dennis Zembala got tired of hearing about the old Miller Brothers Restaurant and its famous wall of Baltimore firsts. So he created one to replace it.

The restaurant, which rivaled Haussner's in popularity in its day, disappeared into rubble on Fayette Street in the early 1960s. But the talk persisted about the wall that celebrated some of the claims to fame for a city that produced America's first Linotype, telegraph, gas light, umbrella, power tool, disposable bottle cap, tin can, silversmith shop.

Last night, Dr. Zembala, executive director of the Baltimore Museum of Industry on Key Highway, realized his longtime dream of replacing the old restaurant's wall with a more sophisticated tribute to such pioneers with the debut of the museum's "Maryland Milestones" exhibit.

The exhibit is part of the Museum of Industry's ongoing $3.5 million renovation and expansion that will add 10,000 square feet of exhibits, an open-air pavilion along the harbor and a conference and education center.

The project is one of an explosion of new downtown attractions or expansions either under way or planned that are expected rekindle the city's reputation as a tourist destination. They include the new football stadium, a children's museum designed by Walt Disney Co. and a retail-entertainment complex in the long dormant Power Plant.

Dr. Zembala climbed a ladder, struck a match and ignited the "ring of fire," a 4-foot-wide metal circle with gas jets protruding. A nearly identical exercise once fired the imagination of others and led to development of America's first gaslight in 1819 by the Gas Light Co. of Baltimore.

Gaslights like those that once illuminated Baltimore glowed inside the vast hangar-like building housing the exhibit, as 350 guests employees of sponsoring companies and other business leaders got the first glimpse of the newest exhibit at the Key Highway museum.

The permanent exhibit comprising the "the First Gaslight in America" and three other sections of the up to 20 that are planned opens to the public today.

"Milestones" provides visitors a close-up glimpse of the history and the tools of the trades for Baltimore companies that created some notable American firsts. The mix ranges from what's now the everyday America's first power tools to the arcane, the first silica gel absorbent, used in gas masks in World War I to soak up the poison before soldiers' lungs did.

The milestones, Dr. Zembala suggested, provide an inviting introduction to the city's industrial heritage for schoolchildren and old-timers alike.

"They allow people an easy handle on what is really a complex history of thousands of little changes," he said. "It's an easy way for people to keep track of change. You can't remember the details of change, but you can remember the sort of major milestones."

"These milestones are a variation on a very favorite theme in Baltimore, and that is Baltimore firsts," he said. "It's really a way to get a sense of what Baltimore's all about."

The exhibit lives up to the museum's reputation for bringing history alive by bringing relics back from the past.

The power tools section features a replica of a 1928 bus with an awning hanging from the back that served as a Black & Decker traveling workshop. The exhibit includes power drills and other tools and the brochures used to market them.

"America's Oldest Silversmith" chronicles Kirk-Stieff Co.'s handiwork with pieces from its collection of mass-produced flatware and hollow utensils and the tools used to make them. Coming Milestones attractions include sections on America's first Linotype, first railroad, mass blood-testing technologies, disposable straws and tin cans.

Pub Date: 3/22/96

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