City Life returns borrowed Mencken art Shuttered museum loses an attraction

October 11, 1997|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's debt-ridden City Life Museums has been forced to return nearly 100 pieces of H. L. Mencken House art, furniture and memorabilia that were on loan from the Smithsonian Institution.

The loss of the art is the latest blow to City Life Museums, which closed this summer because of overspending and low attendance.

"Since the museum wasn't open and we had no idea what was going to happen, it seemed sensible that we retrieve our objects," said Rodris Roth, a curator for the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art.

Gone are pieces of silver, teapots, toy steam engines, decorative flowers arranged under glass, tables and a footstool. The collection will not be on display but can viewed at the National Museum of American Art by appointment.

L "You will be able to see them much more closely," Roth said.

City leaders hope to revive the collection of museums that showcases all things Baltimore. But Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has said that City Life may never reopen.

"We hoped for a resolution by January, but I don't think that we will get there," Schmoke said.

The mayor has assigned his art and culture office to come up with a way to get City Life back on its feet or to at least transfer its vast collection to other museums in Baltimore.

"We are still waiting for the [City Life Museums] board to decide what the board wants to do," said Clair Segal, director of the mayor's art and culture office.

Valeska Hilbig, a public information officer for the Smithsonian, said that if City Life were to be reborn, the H. L. Mencken collection could return. "However, that would have to be negotiated," Hilbig said.

The Smithsonian lent the city some of its H. L. Mencken collection in 1983.

Another collection of H. L. Mencken furniture remains on loan to the city. No plans have been made to remove that collection, because it is not on loan to City Life, said Hamlet P. Aoletti, public affairs officer for the Smithsonian.

Last year, City Life opened a multimillion-dollar reconstruction of its main building on South Front Street that is distinguished by its red cast-iron facade. But when too few visitors came to the museum, it fell into financial trouble and did not have enough money to cover operating expenses.

After a deal to merge with the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore fell through, the museum laid off its employees and fTC shut its doors.

The museum's history campus at Lombard and Front streets includes the 1821 Carroll Mansion, the 1840 House, the Center for Urban Archaeology, Brewer's Park and the Courtyard Gallery. The museum also operates the Shot Tower on Fayette Street and the Peale Museum.

Pub Date: 10/11/97

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