Museum on track for Camden Station

Behind Camden Station's polished bricks and beneath its soaring cupolas, the paint has peeled and beams have turned rotten. The only obvious inhabitants are the moths flitting about the musty basement.

For more than a decade, the 19th-century train depot has sat largely vacant, like a Hollywood set prettied up for the fans streaming into Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Now, after several false starts, momentum is growing for a $14 million plan to revive the city landmark that Abraham Lincoln passed through, alive and dead, and that long served as a jewel of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

The Maryland Stadium Authority's board of directors endorsed the idea yesterday of selling $8.7 million in authority bonds to restore the station's interior. The renovations would clear the way for a $5 million to $6 million regional sports museum on the first floor and in the basement, with the upper two floors leased to commercial tenants.

"I can't imagine a better project" for the site, said Carl A.J. Wright, chairman of the board.

If the state Board of Public Works gives its blessing, work could begin around the first of the year. The goal is to open the as-yet unnamed museum by baseball's Opening Day 2005.

Sports attractions

The museum would be created by the group that runs the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum a few blocks west in Ridgely's Delight. Exhibits on the Baltimore Orioles and Colts would be moved to the 23,800- square-foot museum space at Camden Station, and Maryland Terrapins items would be among the additions, said Michael Gibbons, executive director of the Ruth museum.

Visitors to Camden Station could design a stadium with the aid of a computer. Children could ride a mechanical horse and spear rings with a lance, as in the official state sport of jousting. Among the memorabilia would be the football that legendary quarterback John Unitas threw for his last Colts touchdown.

"Certainly, location is very important, and we feel we have the best location for a sports museum in the United States," Gibbons told stadium authority board members and executives. About $3 million has been raised for the museum, he said, and a new fund-raising campaign is to begin soon.

Eventually, rent paid by the museum and commercial tenants - none has been lined up for the 16,000 square feet - should cover bond payments, the stadium authority says. Alison L. Asti, the general counsel, says the project is expected to have "positive cash flow" within six years. Until then, the state would help with the $1.1 million yearly tab.

For at least eight years there has been talk of going beyond the cosmetic changes made to the station to coincide with the opening of Oriole Park in 1992. One early idea was to put a museum on the upper floors and a crab house at ground level. But Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos did not want a seafood restaurant, and the idea was dropped.

A big hurdle to improvement plans has been Camden Station's increasingly decrepit condition and the high cost of repairs.

"It comes down to one word: financing," said Richard Slosson, the stadium authority's executive director.

This year, the influential Legislative Policy Committee of the General Assembly endorsed the current concept, minus a request to use $3 million in state lottery revenue. Part of the appeal of the latest approach is that it requires no up-front state money at a time when Maryland has little to spare.

The stadium authority board also approved a $50,000 deal yesterday with contractor J. Vinton Schafer & Sons Inc. of White Marsh to refine construction cost estimates. If the authority likes the work, Slosson said, the company would likely carry out the renovations.

Steeped in history

Camden Station opened in 1856 but was not completed until a decade later. It was the main terminal of the country's first commercial railroad, the B&O, and long the city's busiest station. Early on, the station had a 185-foot clock tower that made it Baltimore's tallest building.

One of the most prominent early passengers was Lincoln. He arrived, secretly, en route to his inauguration in 1861, cloaked by security agents who feared that secessionist sympathizers might try to kill him. On April 19, 1861, the first blood of the Civil war was shed along Pratt Street when a mob attacked Union soldiers heading from the President Street depot to Camden Station, an incident that became known as the Baltimore Massacre.

Lincoln passed through the station again in 1863 while traveling to Gettysburg, Pa., to deliver his now-famous address. After he was assassinated in 1865, his funeral train stopped there as it wended its way to Springfield, Ill.

A major restoration

The station's exterior has been restored by architects Cho Benn Holback & Associates to look much as it did in 1867, but the same cannot be said of the interior.

Just inside blacked-out doors, a sign warns of "poison" in the form of lead paint flaking and peeling from the walls and ceilings. The floor is gone in spots, and it is alarmingly easy to see where rot has gnawed at wooden beams and joists. In places, steel supports were installed years ago to hold up the structure.

This is not a typical renovation job. In the basement, for example, 70-year-old steam pipes will have to go, and 20 inches of dirt will have to be scooped out to make enough headroom for museum visitors. And that's just what planners know about.

"When you do a renovation of an 1850s building, you're going to find something you didn't quite expect," said project director Gary A. McGuigan.

Some aspects of the station are at least recognizable today. In the first-floor gentlemen's waiting room (women waited elsewhere in those days), elements of the fireplace remain, as do vestiges of ornate molding and wainscoting.

That room would be devoted not to sports but to the Civil War. Visitors would end their tour there, after experiencing exhibits on the city's two Negro League teams, Terps athletics, Unitas and the Colts, the Orioles story told in nine "innings," and a Ruthian display done up to recall New York's Broadway in the Roaring '20s.

If it seems a somber note to end with war, said Gibbons, it is appropriate given the station's history.

"It's more a reverential thing."