Historical Society buys a bar Mount Vernon: As new exhibit center arises, derelict buildings nearby get attention.

November 27, 1996

WHAT DO YOU do about a bar that caters to winos and contributes to the blight of a neighborhood?

The Maryland Historical Society, having located a benefactor, simply bought the Senator Bar at the corner of Howard and Monument streets and closed it. It now hopes to turn its attention to two fire-damaged rowhouses across from its headquarters. Like the old bar, those buildings are to be renovated and leased to people or groups that will strengthen the area.

The Maryland Historical Society may never become the hippest organization around but it is taking some determined steps to abandon its stodgy image and "somewhat insular view" about its Mount Vernon neighborhood, as Dennis Fiori, its executive director put it. This transformation will become increasingly evident in the next year.

In May, the society plans to open a $3.2 million exhibit center in the former Greyhound bus terminal garage. That 21,000-square-foot building will offer an introduction to the society's holdings and feature a show that is tied to the 200th anniversary of Baltimore's incorporation. Later it will also house a 6,000-square-foot exhibit of the museum's rarely seen collection of American costumes and textiles.

Meanwhile, the society is planning to start an $800,000 renovation of an old warehouse along Howard Street and turn it into classroom and meeting space.

These projects are evidence of the society's renewed commitment to its hometown and come at a time when serious efforts are being made to spruce up Mount Vernon and revitalize the old Howard Street retail corridor. Meanwhile, the nearby Walters Art Gallery is planning to renovate its 1974 wing.

"Mining the Museum" -- a nationally acclaimed 1992 exhibit on how the museum had viewed African Americans and American Indians and how those communities had viewed the museum -- was a turning point for the historical society.

Another turning point came two years later when Mr. Fiori, a New Englander, was appointed executive director, which traditionally had been held by a local resident.

As its acquisition of a problem bar shows, the Maryland Historical Society is not afraid of innovative solutions. This is one more reason to expect great things from its expansion.

Pub Date: 11/27/96

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