Baltimore's Public Works Museum, called the only one of its kind, has delighted engineering geeks and other Inner Harbor visitors with a peek into a world of odoriferous sewer pipes, spidery tunnels and water treatment plants since it opened almost 30 years ago.
But Wednesday, the museum became a victim of municipal hardship and closed immediately, saving the city about $300,000 a year.
"It was a great way to present to the public all the challenges we take for granted," said Mari Ross, its director, who is one of five museum employees to lose their jobs. "It is the only public works museum in the world."
Housed in a working 1912 sewage pumping station, the museum opened in 1982 and attracted about 8,000 visitors annually.
The closure follows the closing over the years of other city museums, including the Civil War Museum, American Dime Museum, Light Bulb Museum, Baltimore City Life Museums, Columbus Center and the H.L. Mencken house.
The city's public works director, David E. Scott, said that midyear budget reductions by the city's Department of Finance forced the closure.
"This is a well-thought-out and regrettable decision, necessitated by the severe budget shortfalls facing the city and the agency," Scott said.
He said the city faces a $127 million "structural deficit" for fiscal year 2011, which is equivalent to the combined general fund budgets of the departments of health, recreation and parks, housing and libraries, or 1,700 police positions.
The museum, which reopened last fall after a renovation of the Eastern Avenue Pumping Station, is housed in a small portion of that working station, whose electric pumps are used to flush raw sewage from West and Southwest Baltimore to an underground pipe near Broadway and Fayette Street. From there, the sewage flows to the Back River Treatment Plant. Visitors could observe the pumping equipment as part of the $3 adult admission.
"The museum had a very contemporary message and answered a basic question: 'What happens when your water goes down the drain?' " Ross said.
Visitors came to the museum at Eastern Avenue and Falls Avenue to get an overview of the city's infrastructure within the orange brick pump house.
"It was a unique experience that provided real insight to the public and many schoolchildren," said John Maynes, a retired Whitman Requardt & Associates civil engineer who headed the museum's board. "To be located within a working facility made it all the more different."
Over the years, visitors learned about plumbing, asphalt, and rail and highway tunnels.
Museum employees were primarily funded by the Department of Public Works with supplemental funding from the Departments of Transportation and General Services. In addition, the museum raised funding from private donors and via grant programs to support exhibits and educational programming.
Ross said she will begin to explore "nonpublicly funded models" that will serve the community and "expand on interests and partnerships in engineering, math and science," perhaps with the help of private education foundations, to continue the work of the museum.
One of the attractions was what might be the oldest drain pipe in Baltimore, a wooden trough unearthed in the mid-1980s when the foundation for the Gallery at Harborplace was being dug. The trough probably dates from the 1780s and was designed to drain water off a merchants' warehouse.
Other exhibits explained the Roland Park water tower, the Baltimore Pike (the National Road), the Carrollton Viaduct, the Jones Falls and the city's storm drain system.