An industrious project

Expansion: The Museum of Industry will open an exhibit hall in three oil tanks to attract harbor tourists. As part of the expansion, the John W. Brown will move.

November 10, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Visitors will be able to stroll along the Inner Harbor, climb into a 300,000-gallon oil tank transformed into a movie theater and watch films about Baltimore's grimy but glorious history as an industrial powerhouse.

When the lights turn on, they'll step outside onto a new 500-foot-long pier and tour a World War II Liberty ship, the John W. Brown, built during the city's halcyon days as one of the mightiest shipbuilding centers in the world.

The Baltimore Museum of Industry and a nonprofit group that maintains the 57-year-old ship unveiled plans yesterday to double the museum's size by converting three enormous oil tanks into an exhibit hall and theater and building a new home for the historic ship.

The $8.5 million project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2003, is designed to serve as a major new tourist attraction to anchor the southern end of Inner Harbor's waterfront walkway. It will also allow thousands more visitors to tour a war relic now hidden in an industrial pier two miles east in Canton, museum directors said.

"This project will establish the Baltimore Museum of Industry as one of the major museums in the mid-Atlantic region," said museum Director Dennis Zembala. "I think this will have a tremendous impact on both the waterfront and the city as a whole."

The 18-year-old museum at 1415 Key Highway in southern Baltimore, which features exhibits describing the city's factories, chrome plants, canneries and garment manufacturers, has launched a fund-raising campaign for private donations for the expansion, Zembala said.

The museum also will ask the General Assembly for money, including $300,000 next spring to help design the new building, said Zembala.

The exhibit hall would bring life to 1 acre along the harbor that is an industrial wasteland, with three rusting 50-foot-tall oil tanks surrounded by a forest of weeds and a rotting pier beside a sunken ship.

The tanks and pier were built by the Atlantic Richfield oil company during the 1930s and haven't been used in years. The museum and Project Liberty Ship, the nonprofit group that maintains the John W. Brown, bought the tanks and pier two months ago.

Half-submerged in the water is the skeleton of the 120-year-old Governor McLane, a steam-powered marine patrol boat built to keep the peace between fighting Maryland and Virginia oyster harvesters during the "Oyster Wars" of the 1880s.

After removing the wreck, Project Liberty Ship plans to build a 25-foot-wide, 500-foot-long pier jutting into the Inner Harbor, said Capt. Brian Hope, chairman of the organization's board, which plans to raise $1.25 million.

This pier will serve as the permanent home of the John W. Brown, which is one of two remaining Liberty ships in the world. The Brown, which was built in 1942 and hauled U.S. troops and supplies to France and Italy during World War II, has a temporary home at the Maryland Port Administration's Clinton Street Marine Terminal.

The U.S. government paid shipbuilders in Baltimore and elsewhere to build 2,700 of the cargo ships during World War II, making them the workhorses of the efforts to haul thousands of tanks, jeeps and soldiers to the war.

The Clinton Street location for the Brown's floating museum has been problematic. The port administration has asked the ship's guardians not to advertise -- because it fears tourists might disrupt industrial trucking at the marine terminal, said Capt. Paul Esbensen, president of Project Liberty Ship.

The new home will be much more visible and accessible to tourists in the Inner Harbor, Esbensen said.

The organization has spent almost $7 million repairing the 441-foot-long ship over the past decade -- restoring the cabins, fixing holes in the hull and returning the engine to working condition.

Next to the pier, the Baltimore Museum of Industry plans to transform the three nearly 70-year-old oil tanks into an exhibit hall. The hall will have a roof connecting the tanks and glass walls, museum officials said.

Inside, the museum plans to create a theater showing movies about the port of Baltimore's history. It also hopes to build exhibits on the history of the oil industry in the city, the history of the transportation and trucking industries in the state, and the construction of major bridges and highways in the state.

To describe the state's history as a major site for rock quarries -- the marble for the Washington Monument in Washington is from Maryland -- the museum plans to build an exhibit in which kids can drive toy bulldozers to lift rubber rocks, museum officials said.

"We all have big hopes for this project," Hope said.

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