If the Jewish Museum of Maryland had less faith in the city, it might have bailed out long ago.
Surrounded by public housing, vacant lots and rundown
warehouses, its property near Lloyd and Lombard streets in East Baltimore hardly seems the ideal spot to build a $2.3 million expansion.
But if museum directors had left the area for more tourist-friendly environs, they never could have created the gem that opens today.
The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Building is the most noble of architectural works -- a structure that not only grows out of its surroundings but strengthens them.
"We very much wanted a structure that would have its own identity and yet would reflect Jewish history" as well, said Bernard Fishman, executive director of the 38-year-old museum, formerly known as the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland. "This is the only Jewish museum in the country that takes its inspiration from other historic Jewish buildings nearby."
Built in accordance with Jewish architectural traditions and with a sense of scale and attention to detail uncommon in new buildings today, the museum conveys exactly what it is -- a Jewish heritage center that houses art, artifacts and archives celebrating Jewish life in the region.
"We haven't run away from the city," Fishman said. "We've stayed here and designed a building that is part of the neighborhood."
The detail and craftsmanship on the exterior provide not only a hint of what's inside, but also a sign of the pride that the museum staff takes in its collection. It shows that just because a building is constructed on a relatively modest budget, it doesn't have to look cheap.
That's a valuable lesson for any organization seeking to build a new home -- but particularly for a historical showcase such as this.
"We want to change our little corner of the world," Fishman said. "We're not able to change the whole city. We're not one of the biggest museums in town. But we want to show what a small museum with sound planning can do."
Today's opening caps a five-year expansion effort for the museum, which was founded in 1960 to restore the Lloyd Street Synagogue at 11 Lloyd St.
Designed by RCG Inc. of Baltimore and constructed by Henry H. Lewis Contractors of Owings Mills, the 12,000-square-foot addition at 15 Lloyd St. has been touted as the nation's "largest and most advanced facility for the study, understanding and appreciation of regional American Jewish history." The addition contains a 2,000-square-foot gallery, expanded library, enlarged lobby with a visitor orientation center, museum shop, entrance court, staff offices and more than 4,000 square feet of new storage and processing space for a growing collection of documents and photographs.
When planning began in the early 1990s, directors had the option of moving to a new location. But the Lloyd Street property was in the East Baltimore neighborhood where Jewish immigrants first lived in the 1800s -- the original center of Jewish life in Maryland. So, the museum opted to stay and celebrate that legacy.
In many ways, the neighborhood is part of the museum's subject matter, Fishman notes. "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 land available for construction was between two landmarks saved by the museum -- the Lloyd Street Synagogue and the synagogue at 27 Lloyd St. that houses the B'nai Israel Congregation.
In 1987, the museum opened a two-level building between the two synagogues to serve as its research, administrative and exhibition center. For the latest addition, the museum added space to both the east and west sides of the 1987 building and modified it extensively.
For RCG, and principal-in-charge Jonathan Fishman (no relation to the museum's executive director), the addition was a design challenge because the flanking synagogues, both listed on the National Register of Historic Places, are so different.
Dating from 1845, the Lloyd Street Synagogue is one of the nation's oldest, built for the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Designed by Robert Cary Long Jr. in a Greek Revival style, it was built in a period when classical architecture provided the inspiration for most American synagogues. The museum restored it from 1962 to 1965 and now maintains it as a historic site and auditorium for public programs.
B'nai Israel, in contrast, was erected in 1876 as the home of the Chizuk Amuno Congregation. Designed by Henry Bergee, it is an example of Moorish Revival architecture, with heavy Gothic, Islamic and vernacular Baltimore elements. Far more exuberant than the Lloyd Street Synagogue, B'nai Israel was created when Jewish congregations looked to the exoticism of highly decorative buildings from the Near East for design inspiration.