After being closed to the public for nearly two decades, a new day may be dawning for the Peale Museum on Holliday Street if its planned restoration as the Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture comes to fruition.
"I think it has lots of significance to Baltimore. It had been the city's first City Hall, an African-American school and where gas illumination was used by a company that eventually became BGE," said Walter Schamu, a partner in the firm of Schamu, Machowski, Grego Architects, which prepared restoration plans with consulting architect James T. Wollon Jr.
"It's a handsome building that can be saved and given a new life," said Schamu.
Rembrandt Peale, the son of Maryland-born artist, naturalist and inventor Charles Willson Peale, commissioned Robert Cary Long to design a home for Peale's Baltimore Museum so he could display for the public his collections of paintings; American Indian and military artifacts; and stuffed birds, animals and fish.
The opening of the museum couldn't have come at a worse time — scarcely a month before the British bombardment of Baltimore on Sept. 13 and 14, 1814.
"Rembrandt Peale, his pregnant wife and seven children spent the night [of the bombardment of Fort McHenry] in the new museum building," said James D. Dilts, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and an author and railroad scholar who is president of the Friends of the Peale. That organization, along with the Baltimore Architecture Foundation, is spearheading the restoration campaign.
"His reason was if the British burned Baltimore as they had Washington, including the Capitol and the White House, maybe they would think the Peale was a residence and spare it," said Dilts.
Peale caused a sensation in 1816 when he illuminated one of his galleries with gas and, seeing the possibilities of this venture, helped establish the Gas Light Co. of Baltimore, a forerunner of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
After the Peale closed in 1829, the city purchased it for $1,610 to use as its first formal City Hall, until the present City Hall building opened in 1875.
Between 1875 and the late 1920s, the building served as Male and Female Colored School No. 1, then the city's Bureau of Water Supply, and finally was rented out to provate groups and served basically as a factory.
While its interior grandeur disappeared over the years, its exterior beauty remained, but it was condemned and slated for demolition.
Public clamor spared the Peale from the wrecker's ball and resulted in its restoration in the Federal Revival style. It reopened in 1931 as Baltimore's Municipal Museum.
Its glory years were under director and Baltimore historian Wilbur H. Hunter, who headed the Peale for 32 years before retiring in 1978.
In 1992, the Peale became part of the City Life Museums, which closed five years later. It has languished largely unused, as the Kurt L. Schmoke Conference Center, because of the lack of handicapped accessibility.
On a summer afternoon, Dilts greets a visitor, proudly showing off a brick-floored and walled garden that separates the Peale from Zion Church and contains several historic bas-reliefs from long-demolished commercial buildings.
Two out-of-service gas lamps, one shorn of its globe and the other with a glass that says, "Holliday and Watchouse Alley," mark the garden.
"We plan to get those restored and operational," said Dilts, who said a Boy Scout troop recently cleaned up the overgrown garden.
"We plan to put in a kitchen in the rear of the house and a cafe. People will be able to come and sit in the shade and sip a cup of coffee and eat lunch," he said. "This really is a charming vest-pocket garden."
Inside the house, Dilts talks about the 1930 restoration work of architect John H. Scarff.
"The hardware came from demolished buildings that he had saved and the marble flooring came from the old Enoch Pratt Library," he said.
Climbing to the second floor, Dilts notes what had once been Rembrandt Peale's exhibition gallery. The room rises more than 15 feet and is illuminated by a skylight.
"There are plenty of rooms and space for exhibitions and meetings," he said.
Included in the planned work are electrical upgrades and a new security system. An elevator will bring the Peale in line with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Dilts says the cost of restoration is $2 million; $40,000 has been raised.
"Our capital campaign begins in the fall," he said. "If we are initially successful in raising money, work could start this year."
A consultant's report due in several weeks will be a big boost if the city, which still owns the building, approves the organization's plans and grants it a conditional lease.
Dilts' dream is that the artwork from the house, which is now leased to the Maryland Historical Society, will return to the Peale one day.
"One item is Charles Willson Peale's 'Exhumation of the Mastodon,' the famous painting that was valued at $1 million in 1996. Can you imagine what it's worth today?" he asked.