Museum is back on track

The reopened B&O is thriving, and so is the neighborhood

February 17, 2005|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

At the B&O Railroad Museum in Southwest Baltimore, and in the area surrounding it, the good times are rolling again.

In the three months since the museum reopened after restoring its snowstorm-damaged roundhouse, 53,400 paying visitors have come through its doors. That's nearly half the 120,000 visitors the museum typically draws in a year.

Membership has doubled. Group bookings are way up. And donations are pouring in, from money to china to a Pullman car donated by a South Carolina family that heard about the reopening.

People have come to the museum carrying vintage photos, a B&O signal lantern, a ribbon from a 1908 reunion of railroad workers. "All of this Americana is just walking through the door," marveled executive director Courtney Wilson.

This week marks the second anniversary of the 28-inch snowfall of Feb. 16 and 17, 2003, that caused half of the museum's roundhouse roof to collapse, damaging prized locomotives and railcars below.

The museum, which bills itself as the birthplace of American railroading, closed for 21 months to rebuild the 1884 roundhouse and reopened on Nov. 13, just in time for its annual Holiday Festival of Trains. Group tours resumed Feb. 1.

In the surrounding neighborhood, the reopening was greeted warmly.

"As soon as it reopened, our business picked up," said Patrick Rowley, owner of Patrick's of Pratt Street, a nearby Irish pub and bistro owned by his family since 1847. "Yesterday we had a group from Rome. Today, from Scotland. People don't realize what a tremendous boost it is for the economy of this area."

The outpouring of support since the reopening has B&O directors pinching themselves.

"It exceeded our expectations," said Wilson, who led the restoration effort. "Because the museum is largely dependent on admissions and gift shop sales for its operating income, from a planning standpoint we were perhaps conservative in our projections. What came through the door was so far ahead of our projections that we were amazed - and thankful. Even on a cold Monday, we seem to get a stream of visitors."

The increase in memberships - from 2,500 before the roof collapse to 5,000 today - was one of the most pleasant surprises, he said.

"We knew we would get some new members. But to double it? Of course, now we have to keep them happy for a year."

Established in 1953 as the B&O Transportation Museum, the museum occupies 40 acres that were part of the railroad's Mount Clare Shops property at Pratt and Poppleton streets. Besides the historic roundhouse - actually a 22-sided polygon - the property contains the first stone laid for the railroad and the first 1.3 miles of track ever used for long-distance commercial rail travel in America as well as locomotives, railcars and other artifacts.

The attraction was renamed the B&O Railroad Museum in 1976 and renovated for the nation's bicentennial. In the early 1990s, CSX Corp., which had absorbed the B&O Railroad, formed a private, nonprofit entity to run the museum and deeded 25 acres to it. In 1999, the museum became a full affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.

Wilson attributes the record attendance and support to continued public concern about the museum and curiosity about how the roundhouse restoration turned out and how the railcars fared. He said the snowstorm made people realize what a treasure the museum is and what a loss it would be for Baltimore if it didn't reopen.

"I think it's human nature to value something you almost lose," he said. "People take places for granted. Many of the people who have come in after the roof collapse said they hadn't been here for years.

"An older institution such as this ... blends into the landscape after a while. People who visit make an assumption that it is the same; it will always be the same. ... The publicity surrounding the reopening brought people back and encouraged people who hadn't been here before to come for the first time."

And, he added,"There were a lot of kids who went through withdrawal for 20 months."

There's more to come. The reopening of the roundhouse is just the initial phase of a $30 million expansion and upgrading of the historic site. A grand reopening will be held in late May.

In the meantime, the museum plans to continue restoring cars damaged in the snowstorm - a job that will take years - and display the progress for visitors to see.

Wilson said he has no regrets about staging a two-phase reopening and hasn't received many complaints that repairs and renovation are incomplete.

"To get the roundhouse up and open and running was very important," he said.

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