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Blacks in Wax Museum presses forward with expansion

Great Blacks in Wax Museum plans big expansion on North Avenue

Joanne Martin has grown used to doubters.

There were questions when she and her late husband, Elmer Martin, a professor of social work, first located Baltimore's National Great Blacks in Wax Museum on a forlorn stretch of North Avenue in East Baltimore.

And questions continue today, as the collection has grown to more than 100 figures and the museum moves forward slowly, but steadily, with plans for a $75 million expansion that would quadruple its footprint, erecting a new state-of-the-art institution in one of the city's more challenged communities.

"When we moved into that area, nobody ever believed that buses would be stacked on North Avenue, but they are," said Martin, noting later that Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o visited the museum while researching her role in the Oscar-winning film "12 Years a Slave." "There must be something on North Avenue worth developing and treasuring."

The wax museum's proposed expansion would add a children's museum, garden, classrooms and event space, extending the building from Bond Street to Broadway — about four times the size of its current home in a former firehouse at 1601 North Ave.

Martin said she has formed a capital campaign committee and expects to hire a development director by the end of October to help raise some $8 million in private donations for a first phase, estimated to cost about $24 million. The museum also hopes to secure about $45 million in state funding and $12 million in city funding over a four-year period to support the project, she said.

"We're looking at the epitome of urban design in an urban setting, in a challenged, at-risk community and showing that a museum can be a catalyst for bringing a challenged community back to life through cultural tourism," she said.

Founded in 1983 by the Martins, the museum opened in a Saratoga Street storefront before relocating to North Avenue in 1988.

In the 1990s, the Martins resisted calls to move the collection, which includes representations of figures ranging from Egyptian ruler Imhotep to President Barack Obama, to the Inner Harbor. Today, the museum brings in more than 150,000 visitors annually — about 65 percent of them from out of town, Martin said — netting some $600,000 in admissions income in 2012, according to tax filings.

By comparison, Fort McHenry attracted about 678,431 visits in 2013, according to a July report by the National Park Service. Last year, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture said it had received an average of about 38,000 visitors annually for about five years.

Visit Baltimore CEO Tom Noonan said he believes expansion will make the East Baltimore wax museum even more of a tourist draw, especially as it starts to make an impact on the neighborhood.

"When you see a museum like Great Blacks in Wax that draws 150,000 visits a year, they clearly are a tourist destination," Noonan said. "If they expand this building, I know their numbers will only go up."

The museum already has invested about $14 million in the project, Martin said, starting to acquire properties in 1995. In 2003, Doracon Contracting Inc. demolished about 50 nearby rowhouses donated to the museum by the city, clearing room for a planned underground parking garage and expanded entrance.

The first designs were presented to the city's design panel in 2011, but Martin said it took time to secure approval from the Maryland Historic Trust for modifications, such as removing more North Avenue rowhouses than previously considered. That agreement was signed by the museum and the trust in 2013.

The project's first phase would establish a new 120,000-square-foot building shell and fit out a portion — perhaps 40,000 to 60,000 square feet — of the interior. The museum would remain open during the expansion, with a finish date for the first phase of 2018.

The architect is New York-headquartered Davis Brody Bond, which designed the National September 11 Museum in New York and is part of the team working on the Smithsonian's new African American History Museum in Washington. East Baltimore Enterprises Inc. is also working on the project.

In September, members of the city's design panel asked about the "significant funding" needed to make the project a reality, suggesting design changes if the budget provded unrealistic. Martin said parts of the new museum — such as added classrooms and event space — would be used to generate revenue.

"The charge to the architects from the very beginning was that our space has to be multipurpose, that we have to be concerned about how we can focus on the history and honor the history, but we also have to be concerned about how this building can pay for itself," she said. "It can be a classroom by day, but there's no reason that it can't be a reception space or event space at night."

Since 2000, the museum has received $3.8 million in state funding for the capital improvements related to the project, according to Michelle Parker, spokeswoman for the state Department of General Services.

This year, the legislature also authorized two grants totaling $250,000. The city's Board of Estimates approved a $95,000 grant to the organization last month.

A spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who has been an advocate for the museum in the past, said he supports the idea of expansion, although the city's contribution has not been determined.

"He's keeping an open mind," said spokesman Lester Davis. "It's one of those things where you support the cause, and then how you get there is something that has to be hammered out and negotiated."

William Redmond, who is being groomed as a possible future director and helps the museum with strategic planning, marketing and information technology, said he believes donations will come as the the effort to raise money starts in earnest.

"From the financial standpoint, funding, especially in this economic time, is always challenging," he said. "We're going to need support from our supporters to help us with fundraising to make sure this museum becomes reality."

Redmond, who started at the museum as a 10-year-old volunteer in one of its youth programs, first became exposed to it when he visited his grandmother, who lived nearby. That house has been purchased by the museum for the expansion, which he said is fitting.

"I can think of no better way that the house could be transitioned than to have it be a part of the museum that will be telling our history," he said.

nsherman@baltsun.com

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