The Rawlings, reborn

An outpouring of donations and volunteers has helped reinvigorate Baltimore's last glass house

Susan Reimer

2:52 PM EDT, September 18, 2013


In her signature green sweat shirt, khakis and tennis shoes, Kate Blom doesn't look like a party planner. But you only turn 125 once, and she's determined that this will be a memorable year.

She's the general manager of the Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Druid Hill Park, the second oldest "glass house" in the country, and she started daydreaming about how to celebrate this birthday years ago.

There was a kickoff party in January, and there have been smaller parties every month since, including a seersucker and sundress ice cream party and a jazz concert that drew 600 people.

And there will be an anniversary gala Oct. 5 — all part of her plan to make new friends for this antique gem. The conservatory has been open since 1888, but there are still people who stumble on it with surprise.

The conservatory has been in serious disrepair, and she knew there would probably never be money in the city budget to make all the expensive fixes. The budget was cut by 75 percent in 2010 and another 15 percent since. The only answer would be new friends from the private sector who had the money or the time to contribute.

And it is working.

An anonymous donor stepped forward and paid the $46,500 bill for a new paint job, and smaller donations continue to arrive in the mail.

Artists Alison Spiesman and Brian Dowdall are creating a mural on the side of some unsightly storage buildings — with donated paint — and the Federated Garden Clubs of Maryland have made the conservatory their "pet project" for the next two years. That means money and volunteer hours.

This spring, 85 volunteers arrived to help plant the gardens, and that's never happened before. And the Baltimore Conservatory Association has been reborn. Twice a week, middle school children and their teacher come to help clean, garden and make repairs.

The Druid Hill Farmers Market, held next to the conservatory, has brought it more attention and more visitors. And the place is booked solid for weddings into next year.

"The police, the schools, the firefighters," said Ms. Blom. "I understand that's where the city's resources must go.

"I think the cultural life of the city matters, too. It is part of who we are. But there is no money for that."

Ms. Blom cobbled together some city and FEMA money to pay the $66,000 bill for the painting and repair of the copula, which was damaged by Hurricane Irene and was in danger of dropping its windows. It is a lovely cake topper for this birthday year. A little WD-40 and even the weather vane is turning again.

There were once five Victorian glass houses in Baltimore, but only the Rawlings is left. It is what it has been for 125 years — a respite from the noise and pressures of city life. But it is a pleasure we are going to have to get used to paying for because cities and states may never have the money to polish gems like this again.

The conservatory was named for the Baltimore legislator — and father of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — who wrangled $4.8 million in renovation money out of the state legislature, but that seems like a luxury now in this shrinking economy.

It may be this way for other pleasures that we have enjoyed for free — parks, bike trails, lakes. It will require donations and fund-raisers and volunteers to preserve and maintain them for public use. And it will require business and industry to recognize that these things are important to the vitality of a city and to the well-being of its citizens and open their corporate coffers for more than token sponsorships.

In the meantime, Ms. Blom's list of repairs for the conservatory is about $100,000 long. And its renewed popularity requires more volunteer hours to keep the doors open.

But for the moment, she is like any woman planning a big party — overwhelmed with details. There have been donations of every sort — from food to outdoor lighting — and she hopes to sell 250 tickets at $125 each.

"Sometimes I feel like I have to smack myself," she said of the good fortune this year has brought. "But I feel like we are at a really good place to start the next 125 years."

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.