Seeking a house for city history

ARCHITECTURE

Groups unite to study use of old Peale site

April 04, 2005|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Baltimore's vacant Peale Museum would be turned into the Baltimore City History Center, a cultural attraction where people can learn about Baltimore history and architecture, if proponents can reach agreement with city officials on plans to transform it.

The history center would house three nonprofit organizations that work to encourage public interest in Baltimore history and architecture - the Baltimore City Historical Society, Baltimore Heritage and the Baltimore Architecture Foundation.

It would also help preserve the city-owned building at 225 Holliday St., a national landmark that has been dormant since the Baltimore City Life Museums closed in 1997.

The Baltimore City Heritage Area, a program of the office of Mayor Martin O'Malley, has awarded $20,000 to the Baltimore City Historical Society to study the feasibility of converting the Peale to a history center.

The grant is contingent on the society's raising matching funds for its study and does not obligate the city to move forward with the project. But the award is a sign that the mayor's office supports the idea of leasing the Peale to groups that want to preserve it and make it a city showcase.

"The proposed use has great merit," said Bill Pencek, director of the Baltimore City Heritage Area program. "The building is extremely important architecturally and historically, to the city and the nation. It needs to be shared with the public again and have its story told."

Designed by noted architect Robert Cary Long Sr., the Peale was the first building in the United States constructed as a public museum, one of the first structures in America that used gas lights, and one of the first public schools in Baltimore for African-Americans.

The three-story building was constructed as a for-profit venture by Rembrandt Peale. According to Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, it opened in 1814 as "an elegant Rendezvous for taste, curiosity and leisure." For a 25-cent admission fee, visitors could admire "birds, beasts ... antiquities and miscellaneous curiosities," as well as paintings by members of the Peale family.

In 1816, Peale illuminated his museum with gas lights, a feat that led to the founding the same year of the Baltimore Gas Lighting Co. It was the first commercial gas company in the country and a forerunner to Constellation Energy. But the museum venture fell through, and creditors foreclosed on the building in 1829. The city bought it the next year and used it as City Hall until 1875, when the current City Hall opened one block away.

In 1876, the Peale building became the first Baltimore public school for African-Americans. The school operated for about 12 years, and then the building was used for city offices. In 1931, it was renovated and reopened as a municipal museum. In 1979, it was renovated again at a cost of $1.3 million, and its exhibits were revamped to feature the history of Baltimore rather than art. In the mid-1980s, it became part of the Baltimore City Life Museums, which ran into financial problems and closed in June 1997.

The idea of turning the Peale into a history center started with the Baltimore City Historical Society, an organization with offices on the Maryland Historical Society's Mount Vernon campus.

President Romaine Somerville said leaders of the city group would like to have a separate building for a library, exhibits and space for gatherings and lectures as well as staff offices. She said the Peale would be ideal because of its central location and history as a museum, and because it needs an active use.

"The main reason we want to be in the building is to save it," she said. "We're a local historical organization, and we feel we have an obligation to ensure the preservation of a building of that importance."

In addition, she said, reopening the Peale as a history center would fill a need in Baltimore.

"As far as we know, Baltimore is the only major city on the East Coast that does not have a separate home for its historical society," she said. "The Peale is a building that Baltimoreans can associate with history and architectural preservation."

Somerville said leaders of Baltimore Heritage and the Baltimore Architecture Foundation subsequently expressed interest in possibly being part of the history center, and that led her to seek funding to explore the idea further.

The feasibility study will give the groups a chance to find out the costs of renovating the building and then leasing it from the city, so they can decide whether to move ahead. Other issues that must be addressed, Somerville said, are making the building accessible to people in wheelchairs, complying with fire-safety regulations and other building codes, and developing a construction timetable.

SMG is the lead architect for the feasibility study, and architect James Wollen is a historical consultant.

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