A 22-sided "roundhouse" still serves as the centerpiece of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum.
Its two-tier roof with bridge-like trusses has been faithfully reproduced, and its 60-foot-wide turntable has been rebuilt.
Visitors nonetheless will discover a dramatically different place when the West Baltimore museum reopens to the public today - 21 months after it was shut down by a record snowstorm that caused much of its roof to collapse on prized locomotives and railcars below.
With help from insurance payments and generous donors, museum directors launched an ambitious effort to rebuild the roundhouse and repair the collection - a project expected to cost $30 million and take years to complete.
Today's reopening marks the first time the general public will have a chance to tour the historic site at 901 W. Pratt St. As visitors will discover, the museum's leaders weren't content to return everything to the way it was before the storm. Their goal was to make it better.
The refurbished museum features a new entrance, new exhibit galleries and expanded gift shop. Elsewhere on the grounds are new meeting facilities and other attractions that make better use of the grounds, with more to come next spring.
"We asked ourselves: If we were to start over, what would we do differently? What could we do better? In many ways, we have designed a brand-new B&O Railroad Museum," said executive director Courtney Wilson, who has presided over the rebuilding effort.
The highlight is architect E. Francis Baldwin's 1884 roundhouse, which has been restored to its original grandeur at a cost of $15 million. With its soaring roof, clerestory windows and lantern, it's easy to see why people called it Baldwin's "cathedral."
But the roundhouse is just one part of the 51-year-old museum that has been transformed since the snowstorm.
When directors realized they would be forced to close for repairs, they decided to take advantage of the hiatus and look at every aspect of the property to see how it could be improved.
For example, the main entrance had been through the old Mount Clare train station, which wasn't accessible to people in wheelchairs. Working with SMG Architects and others, the museum moved the entrance to an 1884 roundhouse annex that's barrier-free.
The former entrance is being converted to a "living history center" that will look like a mid-19th-century train station, which it was.
The annex also contains the four new galleries and expanded gift shop. New features include exhibits on "Railroad China and Silver" and "Clocks, Pocket Watches and Railroad Time," and an extensive collection of model trains on loan from the Smithsonian Institution.
Just steps away from the roundhouse are two new outdoor platforms that enable visitors to get a glimpse inside many of the trains that were unavailable to the public before the museum closed.
A former passenger coach has been converted to display a Christmas garden-style model train layout that depicts trains traveling from Baltimore to the Midwest. It's not completely accurate in its re-creation of downtown Baltimore, but that's part of what makes it fascinating.
The museum also now offers daily train rides on the grounds as part of the ticket price. Before, it offered rides three or four times a year.
Twenty-two of its historic trains, meanwhile, remain in poor condition as a result of the roof collapse. Because the central turntable was damaged by flooding after the interior was exposed to the elements, the museum staff could not immediately remove the cars for repairs.
As a result, the cars were partially cleaned off and left in place while the roof was rebuilt above them. When visitors arrive starting today, they'll see them behind glass partitions, still damaged and awaiting restoration.
The sight is upsetting, not what one would expect to see in a museum. At the same time, it's an honest presentation of their condition. There's a haunting quality to it all, a certain awful beauty. Besides, some people are fascinated by train wrecks.
Finally, as part of the revamped museum, directors decided to tell the story of the roof collapse and rebuilding effort, in several ways.
They've published a book about the roundhouse and its reconstruction. For the rest of the month at least, Wilson and deputy director Ed Williams will give talks in the roundhouse about the rebuilding effort, showing what has changed.
With some of the insurance money, they're also building a $5 million restoration shop that will be used to repair storm-damaged cars - a process that visitors will be able to watch.
Directors would be remiss not to provide information about the storm, Wilson said, because it was the catalyst that enabled the museum to raise money and complete so many of the improvements visitors now see. It was devastating when it happened, he said, but "I think it will turn out to be one of the best things that ever happened to one of Baltimore's historic institutions."
What: Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum
Where: 901 W. Pratt St.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sundays
Admission: $14 for adults, $10 for seniors and $8 for children; includes a train ride and free parking
Holiday event: The Holiday Festival of Trains, featuring scale models and toy trains, will begin Nov. 26 and run through Jan. 2, with exhibits changing weekly