Long-awaited renovations underway at Baltimore's Peale Museum

The Peale Museum is coming back to life.

The historic Baltimore institution, largely empty for two decades and rapidly deteriorating, is undergoing a much-needed renovation. The city, which owns the museum, and the nonprofit that will run it has secured $2.5 million to complete the exterior work.

Even as renovations are underway, the museum near City Hall on Holliday Street is welcoming audiences for small theatrical productions and artist exhibitions.

"I'm really, really excited," said Nancy Proctor, the museum's acting director. "We've got this opportunity ... to reinvent the urban museum for the 21st century."

On Monday, workers scaled scaffolding to work on the dilapidated roof, which likely dates to the 1930s. They'll also repoint mortar in the brick wall and repair the chimney, gutters and downspouts. Then, interior renovations can begin.

When work is complete — ostensibly in 2020 — the museum will include a café and host more regular events, as well as theatrical productions like one playing now.

"I think it's really amazing that the space is being utilized," said Susan Peters, 54, who drove from Annapolis to see the current show, "H.T. Darling's Incredible Musaeum." She and other guests gawked in wonder at the play's set — a 19th century museum filled with discoveries from the fictional planet of New Galapagos.

The play, a critique of destructive exploration, is "a sci-fi throwback to 19th century museum practice," said Jackson Gilman-Forlini, historic properties coordinator with the city Department of General Services. In the culminating scene, six actors maneuver the bones of a mastodon, stepping the beast forward, one enormous limb at a time. It's a nod to a great discovery made by the Peale family in the 1800s.

The soft lighting scheme and dreamlike décor conceal peeling paint and water damage, a result of the building being mostly vacant for the past 20 years.

Gilman-Forlini acknowledges that the production "is a little atypical for a history museum." And that's the point. "It gets people thinking about [history] in a way that's unexpected. That's our guiding mission."

Rembrandt Peale opened the Baltimore Museum and Gallery of the Fine Arts in 1814 as an offshoot of his father's Philadelphia Museum. Peale was a renaissance man — an artist, explorer, inventor and businessman— and the museum combined his many interests. It was a gallery and natural history museum, with a bit of freak show thrown in.

In 1816, Rembrandt Peale dazzled guests by illuminating the museum with gaslights "without Oil, Tallow, Wick or Smoke," as an advertisement put it. It was one of the first times such lights were used in the United States.

That illumination marked the foundation of the Gas Light Company of Baltimore, a precursor to Baltimore Gas and Electric. BGE donated $225,000 to help with the current renovations.

The museum was also a place to show the family's artwork. The Peales made portraits of American heroes and revolutionaries. They painted George Washington so frequently he is said to have remarked, "I seem to be Pealed all around."

The place also showcased a famous mastodon, unearthed by the Peale family in upstate New York in the early 1800s.

Over time, the museum's offerings became more sensational. In the year 1830, a certain Miss Honeywell was the main attraction. Born without limbs, she could do needlework with her mouth.

In 1830, Rembrandt sold the building to the city, and the structure became City Hall until the current one was complete. Then, it was the first public secondary school for African-Americans in Baltimore, and then a sign factory. It was restored in the 1930s and reopened as the municipal museum. But the city closed that venture in 1997, and the building has been mostly empty since.

"When buildings sit empty for a long time, bad things happen," said James D. Dilts, president of the Peale Center. The roof leaks. Water comes through the windows. The mortar between the red bricks crumbles at spots.

"The windows here are literally falling out of the building," he said.

For the past 10 years, Dilts has worked to secure funding to restore the old building and open it to the public. The city, which still owns the building, has left the water and heat on, "but that's pretty much it," he said.

That changed thanks to Gilman-Forlini's advocacy, Dilts said. In 2014, the city passed a $250,000 bond bill — what Dilts calls "the first brick" to securing funding for the restoration. "Putting the first brick in the wall is always the hardest," said Dilts. "Once you get that down you can build the wall."

Since then, the city has put forward about $600,000 for the building. Additional money has come from the state and private donors.

Another $2.5 million will be needed to complete interior renovations, including installing an elevator and moving HVAC equipment from the basement to the top floor. A café is planned that will extend to the outdoor garden. A single gas lamp in the garden outside should be re-lit, too, a reminder of the gas lamps of the Peales' era.

But, said Proctor, "No one's ordering wall paper yet."

The Peale Center will assume the cost of maintaining the building once renovations are complete and the building is open.Once open, the museum may not keep regular hours, but instead revolve around events.

"It's a modest building, so the budget will be modest," said Dilts.

Proctor hopes the museum will play a supportive role in fostering the arts and industry in Baltimore — perhaps hosting incubators for entrepreneurs.

"I think the Peale can really help be a platform and provide connective tissue between creators, innovators and entrepreneurs across the city," she said.

ctkacik@baltsun.com

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