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Black history museum to grow

The Great Blacks in Wax Museum, which attracts a quarter-million visitors a year to its scenes of inspiring and troubling periods of African-American history, is planning a $60 million expansion that could help revitalize a blighted section of North Avenue.

The museum at 1603 E. North Ave. in Baltimore would grow eightfold, to about 120,000 square feet, adding more exhibits, a library, a parking lot and perhaps a place where visitors could eat lunch, said Joanne Martin, co-founder and president of the museum.

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She said she expects construction will begin next year, with the hope that the project will encourage development of shops and restaurants in the block of North Avenue west of the museum.

Most of the money will have to be raised through a fund-raising campaign, Martin said. The city and state have pledged about $4 million combined, and U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski are trying to secure about $15 million in federal funds, she said.

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To make room for the expansion, city officials are set to announce today that they are donating 49 abandoned rowhouses surrounding the museum. The state has contributed $1 million to pay Doracon Contracting Inc. to start demolishing them, beginning today, according to city and museum administrators.

As part of the efforts to revitalize North Avenue, a branch of the Morgan State University Foundation acquired in June the rights to the long-empty Gompers High School building, a block east of the museum. It may renovate the building for educational programs.

Martin, who founded the museum with her husband, Elmer P. Martin, 20 years ago, said revitalizing the neighborhood was a dream of her husband's before he died of a heart attack during a trip on the Nile River in June 2001 to conduct historical research.

"He would definitely see this as a dream come true," Martin said. "This is evidence of the visionary that he was and the faith he had in the community, which he wanted to see thrive."

The museum opened in 1983 in a storefront on West Saratoga Street and moved to North Avenue five years later. The wax figures in the 15,000-square-foot display space show great leaders, inventors and religious figures, as well as scenes of lynchings, slave ships and segregation.

During the past year, the city has condemned 42 abandoned properties around the museum, and will donate them plus another seven owned by the city's housing authority, said David Levy, assistant commissioner for land resources at the city's housing department. The value of this contribution is about $500,000, Levy said.

"It's a wonderful project," Levy said. "The museum is tremendously educational ... and a crucial part of our tourism infrastructure. This project should also bring more life to that section of North Avenue near Broadway."

This revitalization is expected to form the northern entrance of the East Baltimore area that the city is hoping to rebuild as part of a biotechnology park north of Johns Hopkins Hospital, Levy said.

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At the northeast corner of Broadway and North Avenue, the Morgan State University Foundation Community Development Corp. is studying the cost and possibility of renovating the long-abandoned Gompers High School, said Bernard L. Jennings, vice president of university advancement.

The large stone building, which was a vocational school and then subsidized housing, has been empty for 15 years. Its windows are shattered and its grounds are strewn with trash.

"It's in horrible shape," Jennings said. "It needs a lot of work, from the roof to the heating and air conditioning systems. ... We are looking at what the possibilities might be."

The future of the building will be shaped in part when the development group finds partners and tenants who want the space, Jennings said.


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