Historical properties offered for sale Baltimore seeks developers to buy City Life Museums

Mencken, Peale sites off list

November 14, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Baltimore is offering to sell some of its most historical properties -- including the Carroll Mansion, the Shot Tower and the 1840 House -- to local developers, hoping that the private sector can resurrect the failed City Life Museums sites.

Officials from the city's Department of Housing and Community Development have sent out letters seeking proposals on the sites, stressing that bidders will be required to maintain easements and designations that are attached to the properties.

"The city seeks proposals that will maintain these valuable resources for Baltimore City residents and visitors," Walter J. Horton, city development administrator, said in letters sent to developers in the city this week.

Local historians were aghast in April when word of the city's intentions to sell or lease the sites leaked out. But historic preservationists lauded the city yesterday because one of the most treasured sites, the H. L. Mencken House was taken off the block. The city had said in April it would not try to sell the 1814-vintage Peale Museum.

Other properties available include Brewer's Park and the Morton K. Blaustein Exhibition Center.

"The fact that the Mencken House is off the list shows that the city has been responsive," said Jessica Elfenbein, a University of Baltimore urban history professor who initially criticized the plan. "The fact that they split off the Peale Museum, the most historical property, is a good sign."

The city is offering the properties to the private sector because it no longer has the money to keep them open. The properties, which can be purchased individually, closed last year because of debts, competition from other tourist sites and lack of city funds to keep them open.

The Peale Museum at 225 Holliday St., which opened in 1931, was the first archive of city photos and artifacts. The 1808 Carroll Mansion, home of Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll, was added to the city museum roster in 1967. The Mencken House at 1524 Hollins St., which once sheltered the city's most famous journalist, joined the city museum list in 1983.

The three attractions were named the Baltimore City Life Museums in 1985. The museums included the 1840 House, Brewer's Park and the Center for Urban Archaeology at 800 E. Lombard St. The block was dubbed Museum Row.

In 1992, the City Life Museums became a private, nonprofit organization. Two years later, the group took over the nearby Shot Tower, a brick ammunition factory whose distinct tower pierces the sky at 801 E. Fayette St.

In 1996, City Life added a multimillion-dollar centerpiece, the Morton K. Blaustein Exhibition Center, an ornate hall at 33 Front St. with a cast-iron facade. The museum was hailed as innovative, creating exhibits to celebrate Baltimore trademarks such as Formstone, marble steps, painted window screens and Nipper, the RCA dog.

The city had hoped to attract 100,000 visitors annually, each paying a $4 admission fee, but drew less than half -- 45,000 -- in its closing year. The museums were $2.5 million in debt when they closed on June 21, 1997.

Between 1993 and their closing, the city paid $837,000 a year to subsidize the properties. The Maryland Historical Society inherited the 20,000 museum exhibits while the future of the buildings has remained in limbo.

Local painter Greg Otto, who has used many of the sites for his work, laments the offering of the properties to the private sector but believes that it could be a blessing in disguise.

"It's a severe cavity in the fabric of the city," Otto said of the closed sites. "In the long run it's probably a good idea to keep it out of the hands of city government because you can probably do more with the private sector."

Cindy Ptak, chairwoman of historic preservation for the Union Square Association, lauded city housing and planning officials for dealing with the group's concerns. Representatives from both agencies serve on the city's Friends of Mencken House Committee.

Ptak said her group will submit a proposal to the city soon on how to preserve the site.

City housing officials will meet with interested developers on Wednesday in Room 1346 of 417 E. Fayette St. Proposals must be submitted by noon on Feb. 5, 1999.

Although city preservationists are less fearful about the city's offering of the historic sites, they said they still feel sad that circumstances have led to the offering.

"Every time we pass the City Life Museums, it's really sad," Otto said. "Something has to be done with those buildings."

Pub Date: 11/14/98

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