Poe House could close without city help, curator warns

The long-time curator of Baltimore's Edgar Allan Poe House says the museum could be forced to close if city officials stick to their insistence that it be well on the road to self-sufficiency by July of next year.

Baltimore officials — who last summer cut the Poe House's funding — have ordered the city's Committee for Historic & Architectural Preservation (CHAP) to settle on a plan to operate the museum without using public funds. The plan must be in place by July 2012.

"That's a big order," says Jeff Jerome, who has been curator since 1979. "I've been talking to other museums, and each and every one of them — first of all, when they stop laughing, they say, 'Jeff, you should have been doing this three years ago.' You just can't do this in a year."

The museum, in a North Amity Street home where Poe lived from late 1832 or early 1833 until 1835, operates on an annual budget of $85,000.

"We were in the middle of the worst budget crisis the city had faced in decades," city planning director Thomas J. Stosur said of last year's decision to cut funding. "When the sausage got made, certain things got funded and certain things did not."

Although funding for it was deleted from the current fiscal year's budget, the museum has remained open thanks to private contributions and money raised through such events as last year's 200th anniversary celebration of Poe's birth.

CHAP and the city hope to have an individual or group in place by spring to oversee the transition. "We want to have a fresh set of eyes, look at what our asset is today and at what the market might be," Stosur said. "One idea is to spin it off into its own non-profit, and perhaps put it under the umbrella of another museum or educational institution."

Poe, a Boston native who would die in Baltimore in 1849 under circumstances never fully explained, was 23 when he moved into the house, which dated to around 1830. His aunt, Maria Clemm, was the head of the household, which besides Poe included her mother, Elizabeth Cairnes Poe, and daughter, 10-year-old Virginia Eliza Clemm. Poe left the home in 1835 for Richmond, where he edited the Southern Literary Messenger.

Most of Poe's reputation as a master of American mystery and suspense was built on writings penned while living in Richmond, Philadelphia and New York. But he is believed to have authored several stories and poems while living in Baltimore, including "The Visionary," "Morella" and "To Elizabath."

Items on display inside the museum include glassware and china that belonged to Poe's foster father, John Allan; Poe's telescope and sextant, and a full-color copy of the only known portrait of Poe's wife, Virginia, done in 1847. Poe died two years later, and is buried outside Westminster Hall, on West Fayette Street.

Mark Redfield, a local actor and director who helped organize last year's bicentennial celebration and has made several films based on Poe's life and writings, was distressed by the timing of the budget cut.

With the city spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in preparation for September's inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix, he asked, why can't it afford $85,000 a year to pay tribute to one of Baltimore's favorite sons?

"For the city to simply take such a small line item that means so much and does so much for this city…I think this is a big mistake," said Redfield, who plan to post a petition on his website on Monday to rally opposition to the move. "I think that the city can change its mind and maybe save this wonderful thing that it has."

Stosur, however, said it was unlikely funding for the Poe House would be restored, with the city facing an $80 million budget shortfall. "There are more budget cuts coming," he said.

Should the Poe Museum close, it would hardly be a first for the city. Lean budgets forced the closure of Baltimore's City Life Museums, which included the Peale Museum, Shot Tower and H.L. Mencken House, in 1997. The Public Works Museum on Eastern Avenue closed in February 2010.

Jerome, however, who spent of last year debating with Poe fans in Philadelphia and Boston over who had the most valid claim to Poe's legacy, refuses to give up hope.

"After working with the city for so many years, I've seen some pretty strange things happen at the last minute," he said. "It's distressing that, after defending Baltimore's honor through much of 2008, 2009…suddenly, what do I say now? 'Well, folks, it's been a lean year?'

"When Philadelphia hears about this, they're going to be gloating."