City to sell part of museum property

Couple to convert 1840 House into bed-and-breakfast

September 15, 1999|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Baltimore is selling part of the dormant City Life Museum properties to a Baltimore County couple who plan to open a 15-room bed-and-breakfast, a restaurant, an art gallery and a 180-car garage on the downtown site.

The city will keep ownership of the Carroll Mansion and Shot Tower and return them to their former status as revered historical museums, averting a bitter battle over the future of the sites with historians and preservationists, including state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer.

The facilities, along with the 1814 Peale Museum, are north of Little Italy on the east side of President Street, in an area known as Museum Row.

Under the deal, which will be finalized next week, the nearby Brewers Park will be turned over to Baltimore Brewing Co., whose owners plan to expand their restaurant and plant onto part of the site, but preserve most of the land for a public park, said Housing Department spokesman John Wesley.

Roland and Ann Pomykala, who own the 10-room Gramercy Mansion bed-and-breakfast in Stevenson, will meet with city housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III on Monday to finalize details of the roughly $1 million purchase price. Renovation costs are not known.

The Pomykalas, who live at their bed-and-breakfast, were notified last week that their proposal for the site was accepted over three others.

The properties were once part of the Baltimore City Life Museums, which included the 1808 Carroll Mansion, home of

Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll; the Peale Museum, the nation's first museum; and the Mencken House, 1524 Hollins St., which once sheltered one of the city's most famous journalists, H. L. Mencken.

City Life Museums closed in June 1997 after poor attendance drove the publicly financed museums into a $2.5 million debt. In April 1998, the city sought a private sector developer to buy the properties.

Historians were left aghast by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's decision, and their uproar caused the city to remove the Peale Museum and Mencken House from the for-sale block.

Yet the city continued to seek a developer for the Carroll Mansion, Shot Tower and 1840 House, which angered many city residents.

"As far as I am concerned, the city was only interested in making money," said Janet W. Connor, a former city schools history teacher who organized a campaign to save the facilities.

In January, Connor, Hall Worthington, director of the Baltimore Sons of the American Revolution, and other preservationists twice met with Schaefer to plot a strategy for saving the Carroll Mansion.

"It's a tragedy," Schaefer said in January. "What if some restaurant comes in? It's certainly destructive to the history of the city."

City officials, however, believe everyone will be happy with the latest deal.

The 1840 House, a series of five rowhouses, will be converted into a bed-and-breakfast. It is not clear when it will open or what it will be named.

"Until you sign the dotted line, you never know what the final thing will be," Ann Pomykala said.

The 40,000-square-foot, four-story, iron-facade building that was the former Blaustein Exhibition Center will also be converted under the proposal.

The top floor will become a conference center, the second and third floors will house galleries, cafes, antique stores and a branch of the Columbia-based Maryland Museum of African-American History and Culture. The first floor will house a Brass Elephant restaurant.

A 180-car, multitier parking garage will be built nearby for tenants and the general public.

A corporation established by the Pomykalas to oversee the developments will also lease the Carroll Mansion and Shot Tower from the city. The corporation, which has yet to be named, will subsidize a nonprofit foundation that, along with the Maryland Historical Society, will establish and operate museums in the Carroll Mansion and Shot Tower.

Exhibits and furniture that were previously in the mansion -- when it was part of the City Life Museums -- have been in storage since the closing and will be returned to the mansion, Ann Pomykala said.

"They will continue to be public museums," she said. "It is important to us to keep these treasures."

To ensure a smooth reopening of the museums, the city will oversee the hiring of the museum director and require the developer to work with "established museum and historical groups," according to the development contract.

Preservationists have qualms about the bed-and-breakfast and restaurant but appear pleased by the details of the deal.

"Saving the Carroll Mansion was our main purpose, and we are very glad that is what they are doing," said Connor.

Wesley, the Housing Department spokesman, said the Pomykalas' proposal was accepted because it preserved the Carroll Mansion and Shot Tower and infused new development into the struggling corridor. The proposal also was unanimously recommended by the Jonestown Planning Committee and the Inner Harbor East Village Representatives, two community urban renewal groups.

"I think its the best thing for the city," Ann Pomykala said. "They derive income from it, and I think it fits in with what the city needs."

Pub Date: 9/15/99

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