Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other dignataries were on hand to announce the expansion of the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum.
In a city where the demolition of blighted homes is often marked by a mix of relief and regret, Monday morning's send-off for nearly a block on North Avenue was a more joyous occasion than most.
Music — and a little bit of dancing — broke out ahead of schedule, while the crowd withstood the morning's cold for the event, held to celebrate the removal of more than a dozen vacant properties in anticipation of a long-planned $75 million expansion of the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum.
"Oh the walls are going to come down," singers cried to drumbeats.
The deconstruction marks a new phase in the project, for which the museum started to acquire properties in East Baltimore about two decades ago as its exhibits grew. The museum houses more than 100 life-size wax figures of figures including W.E.B. Du Bois to Barack Obama.
The city approved designs for the expansion this spring and construction documents are in the works, with the hope of finishing the first, $24 million phase in 2018, said Joanne Martin, who co-founded the museum with her late husband, Elmer, in 1983. Fundraising is ongoing, she said.
"It's been a long time coming, but it's here," Martin said.
Once fully complete, the Davis Brody Bond-designed project would quadruple the museum's footprint, extending the building from its current location in a former firehouse at the intersection of Bond Street to North Broadway and adding a children's museum, theater, event space, classrooms and garden.
About 15 homes in the North Avenue block — vacant properties, some of which had been condemned — will be dismantled by hand, their bricks, lumber and other materials salvaged and resold, said Jeff Carroll, director of Details, a division of the workforce development nonprofit Humanim, which is handling the $430,000 deconstruction project for the city. One property will be taken down using more traditional demolition methods for structural reasons.
More than 25 people are expected to receive jobs through the Vacants to Value project, which should be finished by the end of the year, he said.
"When you see this type of investment happening in our neighborhoods, it's meaningful," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "It gives people hope and gives people a chance to believe that Baltimore's best days are ahead of us."
Officials said the city is contributing more than 35 properties to the museum for the development, which will ultimately incorporate more than 70 lots.
The Planning Commission also approved a plan last week to commit $200,000 from its 2016 loan authorization proposal for general obligation bonds in fiscal 2018 and 2019. Del. Adrienne A. Jones said she also will be seeking state support for the project in the next session of the General Assembly.
"We're going to deconstruct and rebuild African history," state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden said in his remarks at the museum Monday.
The event came as pressure increases to recognize and incorporate African American historical sites more fully into the city's tourism marketing programs.
The City Council adopted a resolution this month to meet about creating a Baltimore City African-American Business, Tourism, Entertainment & Heritage Preservation Commission. The idea was opposed by Visit Baltimore and the Department of Finance, which said it duplicated existing efforts.
But City Councilman Carl Stokes, who sponsored the resolution, said the city needs to do more to raise awareness of tourist destinations — or potential destinations — outside of the Inner Harbor.
"I think Visit Baltimore does a decent job. For sure, most of the attractions are downtown," he said. "But they really are not able to take it to the next level."
From the beginning, a goal of the Great Blacks in Wax Museum — and the point of locating it in East Baltimore, away from the Inner Harbor — was to attract investment to a neighborhood and community that needs it and demonstrate the area's viability as a tourist destination, Martin said.
"We were going to create a musuem so compelling that people from all over the world and all over the nation were going to come to visit," she said. "In the process, we could make the point and demonstrate that on a corner of North Avenue and Bond Street, in a fragile East Baltimore community, in a fragile, low-income community of East Baltimore, tourism can thrive."
The Great Blacks in Wax Museum earned about $378,000 from ticket sales in 2013, according to tax filings. But attendance fell this year in the aftermath of the riots, Martin said.
The museum has asked the city to extend the Charm City Circulator to its location to make it easier for visitors to access. Stokes said he supports the idea, though a spokesman for Mayor Rawlings-Blake said the extending the route is not under active discussion, given the service's already strapped finances.