Saving Poe's house

Our view: Baltimore's historic properties need modern partners

February 08, 2011

Faced with a tight budget, Baltimore officials have told the curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House to draw up a plan for self sufficiency, one that nevermore depends on city funds — though it is not entirely clear whether that's possible. This news is dark, dire and woeful, but it is not unexpected. Since the City Life Museums folded in 1997, Baltimore has had a handful of historic venues — such as the Peale Museum and the H.L. Mencken House — that have either gone dark or maintained only sporadic hours. A city-sponsored survey of landmark buildings planned for this summer will look at some 40 historic structures and plot plans for their future uses.

The question of how to keep the lights on in historic buildings, as the American Association of Museums has pointed out, is one of nationwide concern. Historic buildings are expensive to renovate and maintain. Moreover, there is no guarantee that if you renovate it, the crowds will come. Even the home of Mark Twain, which draws an estimated 50,000 visitors a year to the Hartford, Conn. mansion, has struggled to maintain a strong financial footing.

Finding an "angel," a well-endowed fan of the home's historic owner to donate funds for its upkeep, is no doubt a dream of many curators. But even when that happens it is not without its difficulties, as those associated with Mencken House have learned.

In 2005, Max Edwin Hency, a resident of Hawaii and a fan of the Sage of Baltimore, died and left some $2 million to the Mencken House. But a series of complications, such as the demise of the City Life Museums and changes in City Hall administrations, have prevented the funds from being used. Recently, city officials and the Society to Preserve H. L. Mencken's Legacy Inc., a nonprofit, say they are negotiating terms of a lease. It is time for the city to reach an agreement; six years of discussions is enough.

It would be nice if a mysterious benefactor emerged for the Poe House — the Baltimore Ravens, a football team named for the author's most famous poem, would seem like a natural candidate — but it and other historic structures in the city need something more reliable than charity or the tourism trade. In order to survive, historic houses need to "partner up," that is, to find a modern enterprise willing to sponsor or share space with the historic dwelling.

That's the plan at the Mencken House. Once an accord is reached, the house can be restored, filled with many of Mr. Mencken's original furnishings, and opened to visitors. But according to Henry Lord, head of the nonprofit that will run the house, the plan calls for broadening its use beyond a museum, tying the house to educational institutions and writing centers. Similarly, portions of the former City Life Museums are now home to the 1840s Carrollton Inn, whose operators offer tours of the Carroll Mansion and the Phoenix Shot Tower.

If the homes of Baltimore's favorite sons and daughters are going to be preserved, they have to find additional uses besides museums. Small venues like these often can't draw enough people or charge enough to be sustainable as full-time museums, and the city can no longer afford to pick up the slack. But their history can be preserved by finding new, lively uses.

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