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Poe House in transition

Edgar Allan Poe was possibly the most original literary talent ever to reside in Baltimore, and his death here, in 1849, at the age of 40 left an indelible mark on the city. Today, the house on North Amity Street, west of downtown, where the writer lived and worked for a time during the 1830s is a local landmark that draws visitors from across the country and around the world.

But last week the Poe House Museum was forced to close temporarily, after the city ended its decades-long financial support for the institution. Its fate now rests on whether it can successfully make the transition from being a city-owned venue to a self-sustaining entity under the direction of a private, nonprofit board.

On Wednesday, the city Board of Estimates is expected to approve a measure allowing the Poe House to partner with the B&O Railroad Museum as it seeks to reestablish itself on independent footing. Under the plan, the city would award the railroad museum a one-time $185,000 contract (out of funds raised by the Poe House over the years) to employ its professional staff in assisting the Poe House to reinterpret its mission, redesign its exhibits and reorganize its programs. In addition, the B&O staff will help the Poe House create a new website, develop videos for its galleries and online, adopt new marketing and branding strategies and assist in recruiting new board members.

After decades of operating on a shoestring budget — the city subsidy to the Poe House was just $85,000 last year — setting the institution on a new, more ambitious path won't be easy. But it is by no means impossible. Despite the challenges the museum faces, including a tiny space that limits the number of visitors the galleries can accommodate and a somewhat off-the-beaten path location in a distressed urban neighborhood, the Poe House also enjoys a number of advantages that give cause for hope.

Among them are its proximity to the Poppleton redevelopment area, which is bringing new businesses, apartment buildings and residents to the neighborhood, as well as an adjacent city-owned lot that is currently vacant but eventually could be transformed into a site for a visitor center, gift shop and additional parking. One idea that has been floated for making the museum more accessible involves ticketed tours via shuttle bus from the railroad museum to the Poe House and back, which would encourage many more visitors to seek out the opportunity to explore Poe's Baltimore legacy.

It's quite feasible for the Poe House Museum to be viable without city support given a little sprucing up and some expert assistance from its partners at the railroad museum. If it can raise the estimated $200,000 to $300,000 needed to operate independently, there's no reason the museum can't get through this transition and emerge as an even more inviting destination for visitors. Its new board might start with the Baltimore Ravens football team, which has capitalized handsomely on his legacy, taking its name from his poem, "The Raven." If a few players could be persuaded to take the poet's home under their wing, it would help enormously.

After so many years of being run by the city, it's inevitable there will be uncertainty over the new direction the institution has embarked upon. But Poe, who first found his voice as a writer in Baltimore and died here under circumstances that to this day remain unclear, will always be honored in this city. He is an inseparable part of Baltimore's proud history, and it would be a shame if the museum that tells his story, like the beautiful lady Lenore in his most famous poem, were lost to future generations forevermore.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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