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The Peale Center, Baltimore’s oldest museum, has new electricity, plumbing, and gaslights

The Peale Center on Holliday Street, which occupies the first building in the United States to be designed and built specifically as a museum, is undergoing a $2.5 million renovation.
The Peale Center on Holliday Street, which occupies the first building in the United States to be designed and built specifically as a museum, is undergoing a $2.5 million renovation. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

With some bold new ideas, a number of small and medium donors are doing the job of completing the restoration of The Peale Center, downtown Baltimore’s 1814 museum building.

This quiet campaign to save one of Baltimore’s beloved historic assets is now shy of only $400,000. Somehow, seemingly against the odds, donors have given nearly $5 million to strengthen and polish up what was the first building in the country built as a museum.

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Located at 225 N. Holliday St., a block north of City Hall, this venerable structure is undergoing the final stage of a protracted renovation.

That remaining $400,000 to be raised will allow The Peale to continue as the home for Baltimore stories, a place for tales of Baltimore, old and new, to be saved and to be heard.

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While The Peale has been closed for public gatherings during the pandemic, that doesn’t mean its renovation work stopped. After 207 years, the building has its first, true emergency exit, a second staircase where there had never been one.

In the fall of 2019, the building closed for the current phase of interior renovations now being completed. It has new plumbing and electrical wiring, a utility system that had not been touched in 40 years.

The Peale previously had no elevator.

“We raised $100,000 through crowd funding to give us an elevator, a small one,” said Nancy Proctor, director of the formally named Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture. “We’d get $20 here, and $50 there. It all added up.”

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The building is the oldest museum structure in the United States. It later served as City Hall (1830 to 1875) and then became Male and Female Colored School No. 1. In 1882, it added classes for a Black high school. It ceased being a school in 1889.

It was renovated about 90 years ago as a municipal museum, and it was closed for about 20 years until its board of friends charged into action in 2005.

Rembrandt Peale, the museum’s founder, lighted one of his art and picture galleries with “pearls of light”— early illuminating gas made of carbureted hydrogen.

The Peale became known as a precursor for a successful later effort to light Baltimore’s streets with gas. Many of those old cast-iron gas light poles were later converted to electricity. Some remain in use in the LED era.

Peale established the Gas Light Company of Baltimore, which became Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. BGE was among the donors to the Peale restoration, as were the City of Baltimore and the State of Maryland.

But the largest single private donor was anonymous, a North Baltimore woman who gave $93,000 to restore the Peale Center’s charming garden.

The center has a fine collection of 19th-century street lighting devices placed in a setting of building parts and sculptures salvaged from landmarks that were not as kindly treated as the Peale Center.

But other than a few outdoor gas street lamps, The Peale has no artifacts to place on exhibit.

“We have no physical collection other than the building itself, and that’s a good thing,” Proctor said. “We don’t want to be redundant with institutions that do. We want to preserve what other institutions are not preserving.”

By that, she means the stories that persons come in to tell in a setting of modern digital technology.

“We host live performances as well,” she said.

She said the current Peale mission is not to house a collection of artwork or furniture, as it did before its closing in 1997.

“We are a museum dedicated to Baltimore’s intangible history. We work with groups, including students who tell the very authentic stories of Baltimore,” she said.

But the Peale Center, she said, remains $400,000 short.

“The last mile is always the hardest,” said Walter Schamu, a Peale board member.

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