B&O train museum in expansion mode

Ambitious goal: Director John Ott prepares for $7 million project before departing for Massachusetts.

October 02, 1999

AMONG HIS last actions as the B&O Railroad Museum's executive director, John H. Ott has been hitting up big financial contributors for help with a $7 million expansion. "The past is what we are all about," he explained, "but if we don't prepare for the future, we will be shut out."

The departure next week of Mr. Ott and his wife, Lili, is a great loss for Baltimore. In eight years here, he brought stability and recognition to the museum and played a key role in reviving the Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce; she wielded influence as director of Evergreen and Homewood, two historic houses belonging to the Johns Hopkins University.

The newly privatized B&O Railroad Museum was in turmoil when Mr. Ott took it over in May 1991. After propping up its administration and finances, he began an ambitious expansion program with the help of more than 100 volunteer workers. The museum nearly quadrupled its acreage and added some 60 pieces of rolling stock. It now has the nation's definitive collection of 19th-century railroading equipment, according to the Smithsonian Institution, which recently made the B&O its first museum affiliate in Maryland.

Mr. Ott built bridges to the largely deteriorated residential neighborhoods surrounding the museum. "If we are to succeed, we will need the help of our neighbors," he once said.

As Mr. Ott becomes the executive director of the Museum of Our National History in Lexington, Mass., his successor at the B&O will face tough challenges. The $7 million fund-raising goal has to be met to finance modernization of the Mount Clare Roundhouse, including an addition to accommodate a miniature train exhibit, office space and restaurant.

To make the most of its location, the museum will also have to find ways to better link itself to Carroll Park -- the site of an 18th-century plantation and iron foundry -- which connects to a greenway that is under construction.

With some 125,000 visitors a year, the B&O Railroad Museum is among Baltimore's top 10 attractions. With improved facilities and more varied attractions, it could draw far more patrons to the grounds where America's railroading got its start in 1828.

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