Sparks started flying at the blacksmith shop on West Saratoga Street when James Madison was president of the United States, and a crew there is still on the job, now operating in a hybrid historical museum and working business.
The folks who run G. Krug & Son Ironworks near Lexington Market have been welcoming tours by appointment for a couple of years, but they've just taken a step toward a more professional exhibit presentation. The Internal Revenue Service recently approved an application to run the museum as a separate nonprofit, allowing it to raise money needed to upgrade the exhibits and the building itself.
"We wanted to make sure it was done right," said Peter Krug, the 54-year-old great-great-grandson of founder Gustav Krug. "There's so much history here. We want to share that, that wealth of history that we have. … Everybody we've talked to has said we have a lot to share."
Over the decades, the craftspeople who worked at Krug & Son have produced original iron work and restorations for some of the city's most prominent structures, including the Baltimore Basilica, Homewood House at the Johns Hopkins University and the Old Otterbein United Methodist Church. At the moment, the crew is working on refurbishing the fence and eight planters for the restoration of the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon Place.
Krug was standing in the brick building's ground floor office, by the marble gas fireplace and the display of photographs of the men in his family who have run the business for generations. The office is part of the tour, as the blend of workplace and museum distinguishes Krug from the city's other museums and historical sites.
"It's not just another museum," said Johns W. Hopkins Jr., executive director of the preservation organization Baltimore Heritage. "It is highly unusual for many reasons, that combination being one of them."
Hopkins was glad to hear about the IRS decision because he believes Krug has much to contribute to a vivid rendition of Baltimore's history. Hopkins was among those whom the people at Krug consulted as they worked through the IRS application and started thinking about improving some of the displays of metalwork, antique ledgers and tools.
Krug and his assistant, Joanne Shephard, said they're not sure how much it will cost to upgrade the historical exhibits, most of which are on the second floor, but the building needs a new roof, for about $30,000, and the ground floor bathroom needs a makeover that will cost about $5,000. So far, they've received a $500 donation from Krug's aunt, but it's early yet.
In the 1870s, Peter Krug's ancestors took over a blacksmith business that was established in 1810 in what was then the rural outskirts of town, where farmers needing wagon-wheel repairs and horseshoes were likely among the early customers.
Visitors who book the full tour in advance can watch the crew at work, using a combination of antique fire-and-hammer methods and contemporary metalworking technology including plasma and laser cutting machines. The full tour runs about 90 minutes for $10 a person — $5 for students, free for children. Those who walk in unannounced can usually be accommodated with the "nickel tour" for about 10 minutes, for which there's no charge, Krug said.
The long tour includes the ironwork demonstration on the ground floor, and rooms upstairs housing exhibits of Krug's metalwork, project drawings and antique business ledgers. In the main second-floor room — still equipped with a working hole-puncher of relatively recent vintage — there's a display of historic 19th-century locks and keys and replicas Krug made in the 1930s for Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.
Another room holds samples of fence that Krug forged for the restorations of the Old Naval Hospital and the Marine Commandant's House, both in Washington. A conference room shows off numerous items Krug made, including grates for old bank teller windows, hardware such as door hinges, and decorative pieces showing steel-hard metal hammered to the delicacy of curling leaves.
The exhibits could be shown to better effect, Krug said, with such improvements as better lighting, shading for the window glare and new interpretive signs.
"Not being in the museum business, this is what we came up with," said Krug, standing by the table of locks identified with a few simple labels that could be improved under the new operation.
The improvement already has begun on the second floor, however, as Shephard was happy to show.
"This is going to be our gift shop," said Shephard, stepping into a small room finished by a college intern this summer with smooth beige walls, white ceiling and new dark-wood floor.
Shephard said they hope the shop will open by Christmas, offering small items such as hooks, fireplace tools and candleholders. There also will be T-shirts, a black shirt stamped with a stark white anvil and the name KRUG.