Plight of Baltimore's Poe House attracts national attention

Native Londoner Kimberly Marie Freeman lives and works 200 miles north of Baltimore, but she's enthusiastically joining the effort to save one of the city's cultural treasures. Shutting the Edgar Allan Poe House, she says with a hint of exasperation, would be a shabby way to treat such an internationally renowned figure.

"There would be outrage in England if anyone ever considered shutting down Shakespeare's home," said Freeman, artistic director for New York-based Bedlam Ensemble, a performance group putting on several shows in Manhattan this month and next to raise money for the beleaguered museum. "I find it hard to believe there's not enough support for the Poe House to keep it open."

Plenty of Baltimoreans objected when the city, citing a budget shortfall that has reached $65 million, cut off funding for the Poe House and Museum last year. The famed author, who is credited with inventing the detective novel and popularizing horror fiction, lived in the Amity Street home from about 1832 to 1835.

But national and international interest is growing as well. This month, as Poe fans prepare to commemorate the 162nd anniversary of his death in Baltimore on Friday, fundraisers for his former home are being held in Washington and Falls Church, Va., as well as Manhattan. An online petition to save the Poe House includes names from France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland and Romania. Addressed to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, it has been signed by more than 6,000 people.

The man, it seems, has friends everywhere. And they're desperately trying to fill the void caused when city officials decided Baltimore could no longer afford the $85,000 a year it costs to keep the house open to the public. The museum's funding was cut in summer 2010, and this year, the city's Committee for Historic and Architectural Preservation was ordered to have a plan in place by July 2012 that would make the Poe House self-sufficient.

"If this Poe House closes, it will be viewed by many as a civic disgrace," said former Baltimore Sun reporter and Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore President Rafael Alvarez, whose "Pennies for Poe" campaign ( has raised nearly $500. "He's beloved here — he's beloved by people who have never even read him. That's Baltimore."

Fundraisers so far have pulled in about $20,000, said Jeff Jerome, the Poe House's longtime curator. That money has been applied to current operating expenses, he said, noting the house has been operating since the budget cut largely on money raised during the 2009-2010 Poe bicentennial celebration.

"My heart is constantly touched when I get these messages and these phone calls from Poe people saying, 'We're with you, what can we do?'" Jerome said.

The Poe House probably has enough money in its coffers to remain open through the current fiscal year, which ends July 1, 2012, Jerome said. A firm specializing in the management of historic properties has been hired by the city, at a cost of $45,000, to study ways of making the house and museum self-sufficient beyond then.

The Poe House, which has been owned by the city since 1979, is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to attracting tourists. It's not in an area visited frequently by tourists, and unlike the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, it's not within easy walking distance of an attraction like Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Poe House attracts some 5,000 visitors annually, about one-fifth the number who find their way to the Babe Ruth Museum.

The report is expected around the beginning of next year, said city planning director Tom Stosur, noting that all possibilities, including turning over the home to private ownership, are "on the table."

"We're going to need some significant funding help," Stosur said. "If the way to sustainability was not city ownership, I think we'd be open to looking at that possibility."

The $20,000 raised since February would pay for about a quarter of the museum's annual operating costs. Even if the events scheduled for this month double that, it clearly would be tough to keep the house open on donations alone. But Jerome hinted that larger-scale fundraisers could be on the horizon, once city officials decide on a plan.

"We don't know what they are going to come up with, what they are going to find, what they are going to suggest," he said.

Meanwhile, local efforts to raise money for the museum continue. The Lebanese Taverna restaurant in Harbor East will have a silent auction during its Halloween party. "Pints for Poe," a fundraiser organized as part of Baltimore Beer Week, is set for Tuesday at the Creative Alliance in Highlandtown. "Portrait of Poe," a one-man, three-act play written by and starring Baltimorean Mark Sanders, will be performed over the next three weekends at Area 405. And the annual Halloween catacomb tours at Westminster Hall and Burial Ground — where Poe is buried — normally a fundraiser for the Westminster Preservation Trust, will benefit the Poe House this year.

"The Poe House has been a massive goodwill ambassador," said local actor Mark Redfield, who started the online petition at "It's a symbol of our culture, and it's a symbol for Baltimore."

And Friday night in Washington, four bands will take to the stage of the Velvet Lounge, at 915 U St. N.W., to support keeping the Poe House open. Organizers insist it's the least they can do for a writer who gave the world so much.

"It would be a complete tragedy if the Poe House were to lose its funding and Baltimore were to shut its doors," said Kai Hsieh, a 26-year-old graphic designer and co-organizer of the concert. "Poe has so much influence in music, television, the movies. His influence is endless."