A 'work party' for Baltimore's glass house

Kate Blom's glamorous old house is 125 years old this year and, not surprisingly, it is badly in need of repairs.

The wood is rotting around the windows, the doors need replacing, the chimney brick work needs re-pointing and the floor in one room is worn and crumbling.

So she is throwing a kind of "work party" this week, hoping her guests will pitch in and take on a job that's too big for just one woman.

Kate Blom's house is the Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory and Botanic Gardens in Druid Hill Park, the last of five Victorian glass houses that once graced Baltimore's parks and offered peaceful respite to the city's residents.

Wednesday night, Ms. Blom and her staff (shrunk to one other full-timer and a handful of part-timers by years of budget cuts) and the conservatory's friends and volunteers will kick off its anniversary year with an invitation-only reception.

Ms. Blom is hoping everybody brings their checkbook.

"The city has gone through some hard times this recession, and it has been especially hard on the cultural frills of city life," the conservatory manager said from her office, where she has been working around the clock to plan this party for 150 guests.

"There are repairs that should be done but which the city can't take on. We thought we'd throw a party and share this building's needs."

The conservatory has been open since 1888, but every day someone walks through its doors and exclaims, "What a beautiful place. I never knew it was here," Ms. Blom said.

The party will kick off a year of monthly events to increase the conservatory's visibility, and she hopes the guests will become the conservatory's goodwill ambassadors in a city that doesn't realize how rare and beautiful an oasis it is.

But the windows in the Palm House are slipping out of their sashes, and it will cost $4,500 each to repair — and there are 40 of them. The cupola on the roof, damaged by a hurricane, will cost $68,000 to repair, and an exterior paint job (there hasn't been one in almost 10 years) costs $55,000. And that's just a few of the repairs that are needed.

Ms. Blom understands why a financially strapped city would not choose to pay those bills at the expense of police, firefighters or schools.

"I don't see the budget turning around any time soon," she said with resigned understanding. "And I believe we are at risk of losing this lovely place."

The event this week will acknowledge the many partners and friends of the conservatory, including Friends of Druid Hill Park and the Federated Garden Clubs of Maryland District IV, which have provided money and volunteers.

But Ms. Blom hopes some of the guests will be generous enough to help her pay the bills. To that end, colorful arrows will point to the needed repairs — and there will be an oversized price tag attached.

"We want to launch ourselves into the next 125 years," she said, "and going forward we have to have a much stronger relationship with the private sector. Cities everywhere are realizing this."

The conservatory was renamed for Baltimore legislator Pete Rawlings, father of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who shepherded a bill through the State House that paid for $4.8 million in major renovations between 2002 and 2004.

But the city cut the budget by 75 percent in 2010 and another 15 percent since.

There is no admission fee, although a donation of $5 is requested. While we talked, a visiting photographer asked if he could make a contribution. Ms. Blom was as enthusiastic about his few dollars as she might be about a federal grant.

The new farmers' market outside the conservatory quadrupled the number of visitors last summer, and the total for 2012 was just short of 22,000. (Compare that to the mum show in 1907 that drew 45,000 in a single day.)

"Donations are increasing from a wide range. Not just visitors and garden clubs, but companies and individuals who are passionate about this business of old conservatories," said Ms. Blom.

Ms. Blom continues to gather estimates for the repairs that are needed, "and it is scary," she said. But so much of the building is 125 years old, and she wants any restoration to be authentic as well as durable.

"We are the second-oldest glass house in the country, and we are still standing," she said.

She just wants to make sure that is still true 125 years from now.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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