James A. Knowles, longtime Smithsonian Institute employee, dies

James A. Knowles, a firearms collector and restorer of model ships who worked in the maritime department of the Smithsonian Institution for three decades and restored a historic home in Arbutus, died of congestive heart failure Saturday at Manor Care Ruxton. He was 90.

"Jim was a very scholarly and very lighthearted person. He was an amazing compendium of information," said Ellen von Karajan, former executive director of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point. "He really taught me a lot of things and was such a great person to know."

"Jim loved history and telling stories about history," said his son-in-law Bruce Wallick of Phoenix in Baltimore County. "He was totally involved with antiques, and his house reflected that. He was such a genteel and friendly person."

The son of James A. Knowles Sr., a businessman, and Mary Belle Kirkpatrick, a homemaker, James Adams Knowles was born in Baltimore and raised on Lenox Street. He and his family later moved to the 3700 block of Greenmount Ave.

Mr. Knowles attended a vocational high school until dropping out at 18 to join the Navy during World War II.

"He wanted to go to sea," said his daughter, Barbara K. Wallick.

While serving aboard the USS Balboa, a coastal patrol boat, off Panama, the vessel collided with another craft. He was one of three survivors.

"It was at night. The water was pouring in and they were in their skivvies. When they got off into the water they could feel the sharks going by," his daughter said. "He didn't tell us about this for years, until one day I was going through his Navy papers and read about it."

Discharged in 1945, Mr. Knowles returned to Baltimore and studied pattern-making and drafting. He worked for the Danco Co., a metal fabrication firm, until joining the Smithsonian Institution in 1957.

He collected stamps and coins as a boy, and also maintained interest in ships, the War of 1812 and the Civil War.

Mr. Knowles was able to combine his love of collecting and history in his work at the Smithsonian, where his duties and responsibilities were far-ranging.

He assisted in the design and planning for its Maritime Hall, which opened in 1964. He designed model cases with base mountings and locking devices. He also designed special exhibitions relating to navigation, sailors' folk art, ship design, sail making and illegal trade.

An accomplished model maker, he restored one of the oldest ship models in America that is part of the Smithsonian collection, and researched, made drawings and built a model of one of an early 18th-century steamboat — the model is on display in the museum.

Another project he supervised was the restoration of the 19th-century lens from the Boston Light in Boston Harbor.

During the administration of President John F. Kennedy, Mr. Knowles restored ship models and served as consultant on purchases of models for the president's collection, according to his resume.

He also developed a computerized retrieval system for the Smithsonian collection of maritime artifacts and ship plans, and supervised the project.

He also worked with Howard I. Chapelle, a naval architect who was curator of maritime history at the Smithsonian from 1957 to 1967, on his book, "The Search for Speed Under Sail: 1700-1855."

Mr. Knowles retired in 1987.

He had an eye for period furniture and helped locate for the White House collection a Joseph Burgess secretary, John Shaw sideboard, Hepplewhite table and Sheraton chairs. He also enjoyed restoring a Chippendale chest on chest and highboy, Chippendale and Windsor chairs, tilt-top and gate leg tables as well as brass, silver and horn items.

In the early 1960s, he and his wife were living in Bolton Hill when they noticed a newspaper ad for what would be one of his most challenging restoration efforts.

Windcrest is a large 19th-century Federal period farmhouse that stands on a hill on Gayland Road overlooking Arbutus. It had once been occupied by the prominent Benson family but had become termite-infested and surrounded by tall grass and dead trees. Vines crawled across its exterior walls, and its windows and sashes had been broken.

"There was little wonder that the neighborhood children considered it haunted," Mr. Knowles wrote in a 1990 article in History Tails, published by the Baltimore County Historical Society.

"It had seven bedrooms and 10 fireplaces," his daughter said. "The house became his whole life."

He and his wife moved into the unheated house, slept in their coats on cold nights and began the painstaking effort of bringing the house back from the edge.

"They'd go to work during the day and then work on the house until they could work no longer because they were so tired," his daughter said. "It took them at least 10 years to restore it."

The family sold the home several years ago.

Mr. Knowles also collected and restored antique firearms, and was a founding member of the Maryland Arms Association.

He had been a member of the board of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point, Ms. von Karajan said. He joined the effort of Southeast Baltimore residents that kept an interstate highway being built through the neighborhood.

He was also active with the Fells Point Maritime Museum. The museum acquired a model of the Comet, an 1810 schooner and privateer that had been under the command of Baltimore privateer captain Thomas Boyle, from Mr. Knowles.

A replica privateer cannon Mr. Knowles commissioned — which was cast by Lacy Foundries LLC — will also be donated to the museum, family members said.

He was also a member of the St. Andrews Society.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Lemmon Funeral Home, 10 W. Padonia Road, Timonium.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by a granddaughter; and two great-grandchildren. Two marriages ended in divorce.

frasmussen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
30°