Recalling Another Quirky Shrine To The City's Past

February 06, 2010|By JACQUES KELLY

The recent closure of the Baltimore Public Works Museum reminds me of the financially fragile nature of our quirky little shrines to Baltimore's historic past.

I spent many a Sunday afternoon on Holliday Street at the old Peale Museum, which closed nearly 14 years ago and remains vacant today. The old No. 8 streetcar passed the Peale on Holliday Street, near City Hall and Zion Lutheran Church.

As an 8-year-old, I was fascinated by one of its pictures, then regarded as part of the cultural legacy of the city of Baltimore. A few weeks ago, at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, I spotted my old friend. It was Charles Willson Peale's 1805 painting, "The Exhumation of the Mastodon." The Maryland Historical Society now owns the canvas.

The museum was a reflection of its director, Wilbur H. Hunter, who was a one-man curator and the brains behind the enterprise. Hunter was Baltimore's municipal historian and did much to enrich the city's image during a time when we needed all the self-confidence we could get.

The Peale was not too large; its very size was part of its charm.

The door was open, and you walked in past a flickering gas lamp. There was no admission charge. The treasures of Baltimore were open to all. The only guard seemed like part of the exhibit, too.

The building itself was part of the show. Built in 1831, it had once served as Baltimore's City Hall. The rooms were nicely proportioned, and some of the ancient windows had panes of amethyst-tinted glass. The floors were planks of wood. Of course they creaked.

The place looked as if it had been created by an enlightened collector with a modest budget. Rooms and showcases were filled with stuff picked up here and there. It could be early Baltimore silver or an old laundry iron. It could be a fragment of a building being torn down or a cast-iron fire alarm box. There were paintings of the ships that called in the harbor. The place was both eclectic and orderly. It also had personality.

Every so often, colorful 19th-century Baltimore lithographs would come out of the vault. There were gaudy sheet music covers. One of these tunes had something to do with the horse trolley that rounded the corner of Charles and Read streets. There were also big ads for the German breweries along Harford Road.

I guess you had to be a Baltimorean to digest the point of this inventory, but in the 1950s, the city had few visitors, and those of us who didn't leave loved all these prized collections. Hunter also opened the Peale's main gallery to local artists who competed in an annual Life in Baltimore show. I got to know artists Aaron Sopher, Herman Maril, Reuben Kramer, Robert Wirth, Keith Martin, Amalie Rothschild, Jacob Glushakow, Joan Erbe, William Steinmetz, Lowell Nesbitt and Glenn Walker here.

Their works often dealt with the destruction of old Baltimore during the period of highway building and urban renewal. They brought an artist's take on the city they so obviously loved. The art and the antiquities were a fine fit.

Over the intervening years, there was a trend among many museums to bring in exhibit designers. While talented, they imposed a boring routine (too many plastic panels), which the unreformed old Peale so tactfully avoided.

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