In the shadow of Baltimore's City Hall is a 200-year-old building that has been the seat of city government, a school for African-American children and a museum that displayed a mastodon skeleton and the embalmed head of a New Zealand native.
Now, a fledgling nonprofit is looking to reinvent the space once again. Organizers want to transform the old Peale Museum into a hub celebrating Baltimore history and architecture with exhibits, a cafe, a lecture hall and office space.
But the Peale — closed since 1997 — is in bad shape. Before it can open as the Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture, its supporters have the considerable task of raising $4 million for renovations and future operating costs.
Museum experts warn that the lofty goals will be hard to achieve in an environment where public dollars are scarce and many entertainment outlets compete for the attention of consumers.
Those working to restore the Peale say they have a strategy to generate multiple sources of income as a way to help avoid the volatile attendance and accompanying financial troubles that have plagued some institutions, such as the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.
"It's not just going to be a static museum. ... It can be so much more," said Walter Schamu, a Baltimore architect and member of the Peale Center board. "It's a treasure because of its history and prominence in Baltimore, and it needs to have new life breathed into it."
Schamu said the building on North Holliday Street is in immediate need of renovations, with a leaking roof that has caused interior water damage and disintegrating plaster walls. The city has pledged to put a new roof on it this year.
The board is negotiating a 50-year lease with the city and working to secure a $250,000 bond from the city and another $250,000 bond from the state.
Schamu said the group wants to tell the story of the Peale's storied past.
The first building in the country to be constructed as a museum, the Peale opened its doors about a month before the British attacked Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. Some historians believe artist Rembrandt Peale , who established the museum, might have witnessed the bombardment from the building's rooftop in 1814.
The Peale's early exhibits included the mastodon skeleton and portraits of heroes of the War of 1812. An advertisement promised "an elegant rendezvous of taste, curiosity and leisure."
Over the years, the museum showcased a "Grecian beauty" made of wax, stuffed birds and an Egyptian mummy. To compete with the likes of P.T. Barnum, live animals, including an eagle and young tiger, were put on display.
Peale also used the building for his next venture. He illuminated one of his painting galleries with gas lamps in 1816 and persuaded a group of businessmen to found the Gas Light Co., the first commercial gas company in America. The business would later become Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
The museum failed in 1829 and was bought by the city. From 1830 to 1875, the mayor's office operated out of the first floor along with some city agencies, while the council chambers were on the second floor.
When construction of the new City Hall was completed and the government offices were moved, the building became the Male and Female Colored School No. 1, and 500 children moved in. The building is believed to be the first place in Baltimore where African-American students received a public high school education. But the space was too noisy, and the building was returned to city government in 1887.
Next, the city's water department moved in. At one point, the building was used as rental space for shops and factories.
Extensive renovations saved the museum from demolition around the time of the Depression, and the building returned to its original use as a museum until 1997, when it closed as part of the demise of the City Life Museums.
"It's time to reopen it as a history and architecture center to tell people about this building and about the Peales, and to tell the story of Baltimore," said James D. Dilts, president of the Peale board.
The goal is to make the Peale a destination for many purposes, including a place to showcase Maryland artwork and Baltimore artifacts. Organizers hope to make the building a stop on the city's 3.2-mile Heritage Walk and offer an in-house silhouette artist, as a throwback to history. Dilts said the group wants to light one of its galleries with gas lamps, just as Peale did.
Dilts said admission will be free.
The board is reaching out to historical and architectural organizations and institutions to use the space to put on events and host lectures, counting on its location near City Hall as a selling point, Dilts said.
Mary Alexander, administrator for the museum assistance program at the Maryland Historic Trust, said she's excited by the ideas, but wary. With so many cultural outlets near the Peale, some "not seeing a rush of people," finding a base of supporters will be difficult, she said.
"Museum attendance numbers aren't very robust, and if we're adding a new entity to the mix, it better be very wowee-zowee or we'll find them struggling for attendance," Alexander said.
The Reginald F. Lewis Museum, which opened in 2005, has turned to the state for financial help after failing to meet its attendance and fundraising goals.
Alexander said, though, that the Peale Center's mixed-use plan sounds promising. The Sandy Spring Museum in Montgomery County uses a similar model, she said.
"The notion of a community space, where people can meet and talk and eat and exchange ideas, that's fabulous," Alexander said. "That's the future of museums."
On the fundraising side, Jeannie L. Howe, director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, said the Peale Center must be resourceful in finding "that magic mix" of public and private funding. Given that the building was constructed 200 years ago, Howe said, the Peale might qualify for tax credits and specialized federal funding that would help stabilize its revenue.
Howe sees the cluster of cultural outlets downtown as an asset to the Peale, not a detraction. "More is more," she said.
Steve Sharkey, director of Baltimore's Department of General Services, said the building is one of about a dozen historic properties the city is looking to turn over to private partners.
He pointed to the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum as an example of a successful collaboration. The writer's home was reopened in 2013 after it was shuttered a year earlier when the city pulled funding. The nonprofit Poe Baltimore stepped in to take over operations and funding for the tourist attraction.
Sharkey said the Peale might be the most interesting building in Baltimore because of its varied history.
"It's all going to be worth the effort, if it all comes through," he said.
Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
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