THE FLAG of Italy flies above the entrance to one of Baltimore's most distinguished buildings, the former Cathedral School property at 7 to 9 W. Mulberry St.
As of this week, it has become the permanent location of the Italian Consulate of Baltimore, the local affiliate of the Italian embassy.
That's just the beginning of an even more ambitious plan for the building, which has been renamed Palazzo Italia.
Over the next six months, a private, nonprofit group intends to turn it into an Italian cultural center featuring a gallery of contemporary art and crafts, a market of Italian goods, a library of Italian books and videos, an auditorium for Italian films and lectures, and a street-level cafe.
There also will be offices for Italian organizations, meeting rooms, a travel agency and other tenants, all related to Italy.
The center is a vision of Francesco Luigi Legaluppi, who has been Italy's consul in Baltimore since January 1988, and members of the Italian Cultural Center Inc., a nonprofit foundation created to promote Italian language and culture.
"We're quite pleased about being able to put together all of these components," he said. "We're the only ones doing this."
Legaluppi, who also heads the cultural center, said the consulate was forced to move from 5 Light St. because that building soon will be razed to make way for a high-rise office and hotel complex.
When looking for a new location, he said, he wanted a building with room for much more than the consulate, which processes passport applications and otherwise conducts business with Italian nationals. He also wanted a location where Italian groups could gather for business meetings, lectures and other activities.
Baltimore's Little Italy community is well known as a center for restaurants and night life, but Legaluppi said his group wanted to be closer to the cultural center of Baltimore and preferably in a large, historic building along the Charles Street corridor.
He said Little Italy is made up primarily of small buildings that would not provide enough space for a cultural center.
"We didn't want to tear something down and build anew," he said. "We wanted to find a historic jewel in the city."
He said the Mulberry Street property is ideal because it is steeped in history, has room for a variety of uses, is close to downtown and Charles Street, and sold for a reasonable price.
"Considering the rich history we have in Italy, the consulate felt that a building such as this would be appropriate," said Legaluppi. "We believe in Charles Street and want to be part of its rebirth."
7 W. Mulberry dates from 1833. It has elaborate Greek Revival trim, a wide staircase and a chapel with two stained-glass windows.
No. 9, the western half of the property, was constructed in 1839 by the Eaton R. Partridge family as a residence. Its main 19th-century tenant was the John R. Morris family, local bankers who were burned out of another residence by mob violence in the bank riots of 1840.
In 1891, the Archdiocese of Baltimore bought No. 9 from a Morris descendant and combined it with No. 7 to create the Cathedral School, which moved to Charles Street in the 1960s.
The property subsequently housed the Maryland Academy of Sciences until the Maryland Science Center opened on Light Street. The architects Gaudreau Inc. bought it in 1973 and occupied it until the early 1980s, when it was acquired by a group of lawyers and accountants. That group sold the building in late October to the Italian Cultural Center.
More than 400,000 people of Italian descent live in Maryland, including 280,000 in the Baltimore area.
The cultural center paid $455,000 for the 25,000-square-foot building and has spent about $50,000 to fix it up. It plans additional work as needed and as funds become available.
Besides the consulate, other occupants will include:
The headquarters of the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, whose president is Mario F. VillaSanta. The headquarters is moving from Broening Highway, and a satellite office will remain in the Georgetown section of Washington.
Italy Mart, a showplace for Italian goods and services.
Galleria Italia, a gallery of Italian arts and crafts.
PNT, a travel and tourism agency.
A street-level cafe. The cultural center is negotiating with the owners of the Sotta Sopra restaurant on Charles Street to open an annex at 9 W. Mulberry.
A processing office for Italians who receive retirement benefits from Italy.
Legaluppi said the cultural center hopes to hold a grand opening June 2, a national holiday in Italy.