Is Baltimore selling its past?

It is the clearest sign of the direction historic preservation may be going: Even a building called Government House, a 19th-century mansion in Baltimore's Midtown neighborhood, is now in private hands.

While some history buffs were horrified to learn last week that cash-strapped Baltimore is considering the sale or lease of 15 other historic properties — prompting fears that "For Sale By Owner" signs would sprout on such icons as the Shot Tower and the War Memorial Building — preservationists say that, increasingly, this is what cities and states must do to save them.

"It's good for the city to go in and try to understand what the needs are and find the best steward for these properties," said Nell Ziehl, area field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "And it may not be the city."

Most commonly, preservationists said, local and state governments retain ownership of the sites and buildings, making lease arrangements with nonprofit organizations or private companies to operate them as attractions.

Sometimes, the historic properties have transferred into private ownership, a move that can limit public access.

In other cases, though, the transition can bring new life to a landmark that had long been decaying or vacant. Baltimore is filled with examples of such recycled structures, including the American Brewery building, now home to Humanim, a nonprofit that offers social and vocational services, and the Bromo Seltzer Tower, which is leased as studio space for artists.

And, of course, the aforementioned Government House. The mansion was donated to the city, which turned it into an inn in the 1980s before selling it last year to a private group that plans to make it a boutique hotel.

The 15 properties identified for possible sale or lease include the mansion at Cylburn Arboretum, President Street Station and the Old Town Friends' Meeting House, which dates to 1781 and is the city's oldest religious structure. Some properties such as the Upton Mansion and Clifton Park Valve House have fallen into disrepair; others are still being used by city agencies.

City planning director Thomas J. Stosur said the city is open to considering any new uses for the properties. He said the city wanted to get a "fresh set of eyes" by hiring an appraisal company, Westholm & Associates of Annapolis, to assess the market value of the properties and possible future uses — even commercial ones.

"If someone wanted to turn the Peale Museum into a restaurant or cafe, that would be great," Stosur said, referring to the Holliday Street facility that has been closed since 1997.

Such a notion may make some blanch. The Peale, after all, was the first building in the country constructed specifically as a museum.

But preservationists say that regardless of who owns or operates a historic property, there is growing sentiment that preservation doesn't have to mean filling it with musty period furnishings and trying to recapture a lost era.

Many house museums, in particular, have fallen on hard times. As public and private funding have failed to keep pace with the expenses of their upkeep, museums have either closed or are open only for limited hours — the fate of the city-owned Mencken and Poe houses, for example.

"Adaptive reuse — that's the current buzzword," said Terry Davis, president of the American Association of State and Local History. "We get calls all the time: 'We've got this fantastic old house. We think we'll start a museum.' But just having a wonderful building doesn't constitute a need for a museum. It constitutes a need for saving the structure."

Across America, churches have been turned into nightclubs, factories into loft apartments. And with the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, what used to be called insane asylums have found new life as well. The west campus of St. Elizabeths in Washington (John Hinckley Jr., who tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, is among those still housed on its east campus) is being redeveloped for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the former Agnews State Hospital in California was bought by Sun Microsystems in the 1990s for offices and research facilities.

"For a building to survive, there's got to be people in it," said Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage, a nonprofit that works to preserve and promote the city's architectural history.

But he wondered whether the city is realistic in thinking it had a "gold mine" waiting to be excavated from properties that have deteriorated over the years from neglect.

"If there were a high-tech software company that wanted to move into Upton Mansion, I would applaud that," he said of the west-side building that dates to the 1830s. "I think all uses should be on the table."

Not every historic property, though, can be repurposed for modern or profit-making use, Hopkins said. "The Shot Tower: What commercial use is there? We're not making lead shot for muskets anymore."

And, Hopkins noted, the tower and some other structures on the city's list have a value that cannot be measured by market standards alone. "They're what make Baltimore Baltimore," he said. "They're at the core of the identity of Baltimore."

Still, Hopkins is glad the city is at least studying what to do about buildings that in some cases it "cannot or will not, and has not done the best job with them."

Some who have worked over the years to preserve the structures were shocked to find them on the list of properties up for consideration.

Dwight Warren, executive director of the McKim Free Center, said the building is heavily used by youth sports and after-school programs, and meetings for groups such as Narcotics Anonymous. He said there is no way the center could buy the facility, a replica of a Greek Doric temple that was built in the 1800s as the McKim Free School, if the city should try to sell it.

"I know the city is facing many problems, but any consideration of changing what we do here is news to us and would be a challenge for us," Warren said.

Even as the city seeks input on how to use the facilities, some volunteer and civic groups already have conceived plans for them — and in some cases raised funds to put those plans in place.

James D. Dilts of the Friends of the Peale, for example, said the group has raised $40,000 toward a $2.5 million goal to renovate the closed museum and create a center for Baltimore history and architecture. He envisions exhibits, a 2,000-book reading room, an auditorium, cafe and lecture series.

"We're talking to the city now to try to get ready when this consultant's study is done," he said. "We have what we believe is a workable and exciting program for the reuse of America's oldest museum."

Roland Park Civic League president Phil Spevak said his organization has been working with the city to try to turn the site of the Roland Water Tower into a community park, with trails connecting it to other parts of the neighborhood. Residents want the tower's observation deck restored and nighttime lighting, he said.

Spevak plans to share the ideas with the consultant hired by the city to assess the 15 properties. He believes the city will move forward with the association's plans.

"There's been quite a bit of excitement," he said. "I'm not expecting there will be different points of view. I think this is going to happen and it's going to be great for the community."

Donna Ann Harris, a Philadelphia-based preservation consultant, said that generating community involvement, rather than seeking out-of-town tourists, can be the key to saving historic sites.

"In most cases, these are the people who care about the site the most," said Harris, who wrote "New Solutions for House Museums." Among the success stories she profiled in her book was a house in Nantucket, Mass., that, rather than being turned into a museum or bed-and-breakfast, has become a place for local meetings of book clubs and arts-and-crafts groups.

Harris has seen more states than cities try to find private or nonprofit groups to maintain and operate sites, noting that Ohio and Pennsylvania are among those particularly successful in transferring management functions to historical societies.

But any transfer, she said, must come with the condition that a site's history be preserved, because landmarks belong to everyone.

"They really are public entities," Harris said. "It's part of the historic patrimony of the state."

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.