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Baltimore City

Then and now, The Peale museum pays homage to Baltimore history

It was a good time to catch up with The Peale, Baltimore’s delightful museum that reopened last month after a series of on and off interruptions.

On a personal note, I admit that I have missed my visits to this venerable institution, housed in an 1814 building, at 225 N. Holliday St., near City Hall and Zion Lutheran Church. Baltimore’s own museum that celebrates life in the city closed in 1997 when the municipal funding for it dried up.

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It remained shuttered for this long stretch until a band of dedicated philanthropists who loved the place vowed to work with the City of Baltimore to get it open. Along the way came a new roof and a concerted mission to admit the fresh air.

Those 25 years without a Peale were a downer for those of us who recall spending Sunday afternoons in the 1960s looking at its collection of the footnotes of old Baltimore. Its galleries housed old lithographs and bits of iron twisted into strange shapes during the 1904 Baltimore Fire.

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I found that returning to The Peale, as it is now called, was like meeting up again with an old friend. The exhibits are naturally not the same, but the whole experience was reassuring.

The place has never looked better. There now is a fine new elevator too, something the old Peale never enjoyed. Its galleries remain remarkable for their age and graciousness.

The building pays its respects to a number of donors who over the years developed a lasting affection for this Baltimore treasure.

The Peale Museum on Holliday Street occupies the first building in the United States to be designed and built specifically as a museum. It reopened after a $5.5 million renovation.

One of the prime movers for The Peale’s return to the land of the living was James Dilts, a writer and one-time Baltimore Sun reporter who led an effort to get the lock off the front door and reopen The Peale.

Dilts, who wrote a feature, the Changing City, for this newspaper in the early 1970s lived on Thames Street and chronicled the neighborhood battle to stop a planned interstate expressway through that neighborhood and Canton, as well.

The current rendition of The Peale has a nice tribute to Dilts. There is a re-creation of his desk, books, typewriter and other objects brought in from a home where he later lived on Keswick Road in the Evergreen neighborhood near Roland Park.

It’s not hard to imagine Dilts, who was a serious and scholarly writer, at work in these surroundings as he went on to write his life’s work, a lengthy history of the early days of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

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“Jim was indefatigable. He never wavered. Until his dying days, Jim said we’re going to do it, we’re going to get the Peale back,” said Walter Schamu, a Peale board member.

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Peale Museum director Nancy Proctor explains a display that recalls the Peale Museum building’s use as Male and Female Colored School No. 1 in the late 1800s.

The Peale retains its staircase and elegant rooms, the exhibition hall, time-worn wood floors and plaster walls. The current restoration reveals three centuries of that plaster work. The refurbishment also revealed a small section of the wallpaper (violently floral) when the building served as Baltimore’s City Hall.

This is a building that has worked hard for Baltimore over those centuries. Yes, it was an art gallery and then City Hall; it also served as Baltimore’s first public high school for African American students.

There is a fine display of the building’s educational past― it was also a Black grammar school ― and from 1878 to 1889, it was Baltimore’s only Black high school.

The Peale’s current exhibit includes a gallery devoted to Baltimore’s contemporary artists. It’s the same space when the artist community of the 1950s ― people such as Joan Erby, Aaron Sopher, Lowell Nesbitt, Herman Maril, Reuben Kramer, Robert Wirth, Keith Martin, Amalie Rothschild and Jacob Glushakow — once displayed their work.

It is also worth noting that The Peale’s celebrated miniature garden, with its gas lamps, is now open once again. It’s a choice spot, thriving in the middle of old downtown, where pieces of old architectural Baltimore have found a safe harbor.

“The sweet spot of The Peale is its intimacy,” said Nancy Proctor, its director. “We are never going to be what other larger museums are and we’re not trying to be.”


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