For five years, Baltimore has gone without a museum to house its historical photographs, prints and memorabilia.
But yesterday, the fledgling Baltimore City Historical Society swung open the doors of the last building to hold that distinction, the Peale Museum, allowing history buffs, preservationists and city enthusiasts to reminisce and to ruminate on the possibilities for the 189-year-old structure.
"Above all, it is the symbol of Baltimore history - the symbol - and it needs to be maintained," said retired Baltimore Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes, founding president of the city's 18-month-old historical society. "To lose a building like this, to have it vacant, says there's something wrong with us. There no longer is a center point for history in Baltimore."
Yesterday's reception drew nearly 200 people - including Mayor Martin O'Malley and former Mayors Kurt L. Schmoke and Thomas J. D'Alesandro III - intent on filling that void.
"When we were growing up, this was something you did with school trips," said Joan Weglein, who was raised in West Baltimore. "The Peale was part of growing up, it was our favorite museum, and it's exciting to be here again, if only for a day."
Bryan Stark, strategic planning director of a Baltimore-based advertising and public relations agency that has been working with the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, imagined a day when the Peale again might hold the city's historical treasures and be included on a "Star-Spangled Walk," much like Boston's famed Freedom Trail.
And Robert J. Thieblot, a historical society trustee, came to see the condition of the building, which was shuttered in 1997 when the Baltimore City Life Museums, of which it was a part, suffered financial problems and closed.
"Every great city should have a museum of its history," he said, mentioning Paris' Musee Carnavalet and the Museum of London as examples. "It's a pity that the Baltimore City Life Museums went defunct, but the result is that important buildings like this one are left with no assurance that they'll remain a part of the city's history."
In the shadow of City Hall at 225 N. Holliday St., the Peale is the oldest building in the United States designed and constructed to be a public museum. It served for more than four decades in the 1800s as Baltimore's City Hall. And it later was the city's first public school for African-Americans.
From 1931 until June 1997, it served as a municipal museum. And in December 1999, in the last day's of Schmoke's tenure as mayor, the city rededicated the building and renamed it the Kurt L. Schmoke Conference Center at the Peale Museum.
No firm plans have been made for the three-story brick building, which first needs a new electrical system, an elevator and other modifications to make it accessible to the disabled.
"When those structural things happen, then other possibilities emerge," said Byrnes, the historical society president.
Among them are providing office space for the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, which reviews construction plans involving city landmarks and historic districts, and housing the city historical society, now at the Maryland Historical Society.
With proper security systems and climate controls, the building also would be a good home for the society's burgeoning collection of city-related books, pamphlets and magazines, Byrnes said. He and his colleagues have collected 650 items since asking prospective members in May last year to donate a tome rather than dues the first year. And in a nod to the building's original purpose, Byrnes would like to offer a permanent, rotating exhibition of items from the Peale's old collection, most of which is in storage at the Maryland Historical Society.
"We'd like to see some space available to the public in a modest display," he said. "No one in this organization has any intention to re-establish the historical museum. ... But we need some of that to see this building come back alive."