Out of the ruins

The Baltimore Sun

In 2003, Tropical Storm Isabel ripped yawning holes in the walls of the old McNasby Oyster Co. building, the last standing shucking house in Annapolis. Water filled the rooms, leaving debris and mildew in its trail. Part of the dock was washed away. The damage was crushing to the Annapolis Maritime Museum, which had only recently moved into the historic space.

But the tiny staff and team of volunteers behind the museum, which is dedicated to commemorating the maritime heritage of Annapolis and the Chesapeake Bay, vowed to restore the now 90-year-old facility. The fruits of their five-year effort were on display Thursday, when a group of well-wishers and supporters toured the 99.9 percent completed building. Thanks to a $1.2 million renovation - about half of the total cost of an ambitious reinvention - the museum now has two 2,000-square-foot exhibition rooms, complete with restored walls, block glass, exposed silver pipes and flood valves to protect it from another storm. The new space will officially open in December.

"It's astounding, the transformation," said Nick Berry, a museum volunteer. "It's gone from a wreck to a treasure."

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin attended the event - along with several local politicians - to present the museum with a $75,000 check from the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, a program of the National Park Service.

The money will help fund "Oysters on the Half Shell," a permanent, interactive exhibit highlighting the natural history of the oyster and the cultural history of the region's oyster industry.

That show, set to open in 2010, will feature a 700-gallon aquarium with a living oyster reef and the original tools and stalls that shuckers used to split open oysters by the thousands. Visitors will be able to hear recordings of the spirituals that workers used to sing while they labored and hear the stories of former employees of the McNasby Oyster Co. The plant thrived through the 1970s, then slowly declined for years before finally closing in 1998.

"This is incredible what they have done to preserve Maryland's history," Cardin said. "It's a good day; McNasby's lives on."

The new exhibit, he said, "will help young people understand what oysters meant to Maryland and what we need to do to protect oysters for the future."

Founded in 1986 as the Eastport Historical Committee, a community organization of volunteers, the museum has gradually grown and now has three full-time staff members. After Tropical Storm Isabel, they moved into a small barge house near the plant and continued holding seminars and concert series and educating students about the life of the bay.

About 1,500 students visited the museum last spring, said executive director Jeff Holland, and they expect thousands more to pass through next year.

In addition to the permanent show, the museum will have temporary art and photography shows that will rotate on a quarterly basis.

The first one, which opens Dec. 1, will be based on Over the Bridge, A History of Eastport at Annapolis, a book by Ginger M. Doyel that the museum recently published.

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