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Preview of The Peale’s $5.5 Million Renovation

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Few buildings in Baltimore have had as many lives as the one at 225 Holliday Street, one block from City Hall. It has housed a school, a seat of government, a fledgling company, and several different museums. In a city of firsts, it represents more than one.

This year, after a five-year renovation, the Holliday Street building is starting anew as The Peale, a cultural center for the 21st century. Its slogan is “Baltimore’s Community Museum.”

The nonprofit group behind the restoration has successfully completed its $5.5 million capital campaign and scheduled a grand opening ceremony for August 13, 2022, the 208th anniversary of The Peale’s original opening. Starting this month, directors will present a series of events, exhibits, and performances that will show what they mean by a community museum and how the four-story building and its garden will be used from now on.

On the last weekend of April, the staff and board held an open house for supporters and contractors to show off the physical improvements completed since 2017, recall the building’s history, and outline their plans for the future.

“Thank you for saving this historic building—the first museum ever built in the United States, and the site of so many other groundbreaking firsts in the history of this city and nation,” Nancy Proctor, the Peale’s chief strategy officer, told the guests. “Because you renovated this beautiful, magical building, we can now rededicate it to the service of Baltimore’s citizens and friends around the world as Baltimore’s Community Museum.”

Named for Rembrandt Peale, the artist and gaslight innovator who constructed it, the building opened in 1814 and is considered the first “purpose-built” museum in the Northern Hemisphere—the Baltimore Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts.

It was the first structure in Baltimore to be illuminated with gas fixtures—which Peale installed to light the contents of his museum—and was the birthplace of the Baltimore Gas & Electric Company. It housed Baltimore’s first City Hall from 1830 to 1878. Then, from 1878 to 1889, it became Male and Female Colored School No. 1, the site of one of the first grammar schools in Baltimore’s Colored School system, as it was known then, and the first high school in Maryland available to people of color.

Proctor said The Peale will be different from the previous museums that were housed in the Holliday Street building, all of which had a permanent collection of art and objects on display. In its new iteration, she said, The Peale will be a non-collecting museum, the setting for an always-changing array of programs and exhibits.

“The Peale in the 21st century is a place where anyone can share their story of the city,” she said. “It is both a platform and a showcase for the city’s storytellers, artists, and culture keepers, and home to the largest digital archive of Baltimore stories in the world. The Peale is also a teaching museum and a laboratory for radically reimagining what a museum can be today. In that regard at least, what we are doing at The Peale now would be quite familiar to Rembrandt Peale and his family.”

Staff Members at The Peale, photo by the author
The Peale in the 21st century is a place where anyone can share their story of the city.
Nancy Proctor

‘Elevate and amplify’

According to its website, the current Peale organization began as Friends of the Peale in 2008. In June of 2012, the Friends of the Peale and the Baltimore History Center at the Peale, a nonprofit corporation formed by retired Maryland Circuit Court Judge John Carroll Byrnes, joined forces as The Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture.

The City of Baltimore owns the four-story building, which was designed by Robert Cary Long Sr., and has leased it to The Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture for 50 years at $1 a year. Since the board launched its capital campaign in 2017 to fund interior and exterior renovations, more than 500 individuals and organizations have supported the work, which is essentially complete.

One of the only features not in service over the open-house weekend was a new elevator, the building’s first. Installed to make the second and third-floor galleries accessible to people in wheelchairs, the elevator works but still needed an inspection certificate.

Under the restoration plan, the first three floors are open to the public for exhibits and gatherings. The largest space is a second-floor theater and gallery that can hold 80 to 100 people. The top floor will contain staff offices. The basement has room for storage. Side and rear gardens provide additional room for programming.

The Peale has operated during the pandemic and construction phase at the Carroll Mansion and with online programs, and it will continue to offer virtual exhibits and programs through a platform known as Second Life, Proctor said. The Peale is home to “the world’s largest digital collection of Baltimore stories” and intends to build on that.

“We get more visitation in Second Life than we have ever gotten to this physical building, because in Second Life we can welcome a global audience and it’s open 24-7,” Proctor said. “So there are lots of ways that we can help projects.”

At the same time, she said, having the renovated building will strengthen The Peale by giving people a place to come together and view exhibits in person. Admission may be charged for some events and exhibits, while others will be free.

Proctor said she expects the building to draw 15,000 visitors a year or more, and that her goal is to make The Peale’s in-person offerings and online programs work together so they “elevate and amplify” each other.

“It’s really important to us to think of this building as a destination and try to get people through the door here, but [also] to get the culture heard and seen by people everywhere, which means going where the people are,” she said.

Peale Open House, Photo by Glenn Ricci

A Baltimore-centric museum

Proctor started as the Peale’s executive director but changed her title to chief strategy officer to reflect that the organization is led by a group, not one person. Besides herself, The Peale has three others in leadership roles—Krista Green, chief administrative officer; Robin Marquis, chief operations officer; and Jeffrey Kent, chief curator and artistic director. It has 15 full- and part-time employees in all.

Proctor wants The Peale to be a place that tells stories other places don’t. She said the work can be in any number of formats but The Peale is looking primarily to showcase Baltimore-based artists or artists with stories pertinent to Baltimore.

“What we’re trying to do is be completely driven by the community so that the stories, the experiences, the creativity that perhaps hasn’t been represented enough in other institutions—stories and voices that haven’t been heard enough—have a home,” she said. “Our goal really is to be a platform for the community’s creators and culture keepers, and everything that we do here comes from those people.”

That approach is what will separate The Peale from other museums in the area, she said.

“The traditional museum way is kind of top-down from the curators,” she said. By contrast, “we’re totally grassroots-driven. So literally, people walk in off the street. They recognize in this space something that will serve their purpose, their project, their story, and they say, ‘Hey, I’d really like to do X here.’ It might be an exhibition. It might be a performance. It might be a workshop. It might be a history lecture. We’re like: ‘Great.’ Because when those stories come from the people, we know that they’re relevant, and they come with their audience baked-in as well. So we’re really here to play a different kind of role.”

The Peale will be receptive to a wide range of ideas, Proctor said.

“Stories that are relevant to the Peale building and the Peale family history will always have a home here,” she said. “Other than that, it’s really Baltimore-related. So it could be a Baltimore-based artist or storyteller or historian. It could somebody from out of town who has a wonderful story to tell about the Peale or about Baltimore… It’s Baltimore-centric. That’s our focus.”

Other museums “are doing a great job showcasing objects,” she added. “We’re showcasing everything else that hasn’t necessarily been preserved.”

Asked whether The Peale will favor exhibits that look back or look ahead, Proctor said it will do both. “A lot of what I see happening—and this is again coming from the artists rather than our requesting it—perhaps because of the history of the building, there are a lot of things that mix history with contemporary practice.”

Proctor said she would particularly like to see a Mining the Museum-type exhibit that takes a contemporary approach to exhibiting historical objects, the way Fred Wilson did in 1992 for the Maryland Historical Society and The Contemporary.

New chandelier designed by David Wiesand, photo by the author
The Peale is saying [to artists]: You have an idea. What resources do we have to help make it work?
Chrys Seawood

Open to ideas 

Unlike museums that might favor established artists, The Peale is in a position to help young artists with grants and other assistance, said Chrys Seawood, an artist-fellow and educator who is helping to determine what gets shown. “The Peale is saying [to artists]: You have an idea. What resources do we have to help make it work?”

Jeffrey Kent, the chief curator (and the Director of BmoreArt’s Connect+Collect Program), said he’s particularly interested in exhibiting works that “encompass a story from a Baltimore-based artist that has history connected to the story” and are also “community-related.” He’s also intrigued by work that’s linked to The Peale and the many lives it has had.

A good example, he said, is photographer Devin Allen’s 2019 exhibit of photographs of vacant and rundown buildings, shown at a time when the Peale itself was still in need of interior renovations.

“The history of this building just goes on and on,” Kent said. “So when I think of exhibitions, I’d like them to somehow connect to the different stories that have been here already.”

Like Proctor and Seawood, Kent said he’s open to proposals.

“We’ll take referrals from anyone,” he said. “Anyone in the community that has an idea, we’ll take a look at it. And if it’s something that we feel can connect to the community and have a voice that needs to be heard, we’ll try to figure out a way to help them create their exhibit.” If there’s a renowned artist with a project that’s relevant to Baltimore, “we’re not going to say no” to that either, he said.

Table of salvaged details at The Peale, photo by the author

Five-year renovation effort

The renovations began in 2017, when the City of Baltimore replaced the roof and repaired exterior masonry. In 2018, The Peale renovated all of the windows and doors and replanted the garden, with funding assistance from BGE and other donors.

Besides the new elevator, interior renovations included new lights, a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, and an updated fire safety system. Room layouts weren’t changed significantly. Floors were restored and plasterwork was repaired, giving the interior much the same look it had in the 1800s. For the second floor, Baltimore designer David Wiesand of McClain Wiesand created a chandelier that evokes the gaslit “Ring of Fire” that had been in the building.

Some of the improvements were intended to help the building last for another 200 years, including the use of extra-strong “aquarium glass” on the first-floor windows that’s meant to protect the building in case of flooding. Because of the city’s resiliency requirements, mechanical equipment was moved to the fourth floor, out of any floodplain.

Many of the rooms were kept empty during the open house, but a few had activities, including a room where artist Lauren Muney made silhouettes of guests—a precursor of photographs. In most galleries, photos showed the condition of the spaces before the restoration, with peeling paint and water-damaged walls. In one gallery, a table contained salvaged decorative pieces salvaged, such as fragments of crown molding.

Some of the rooms have been named after people who were part of the building’s past or the city’s past, like the Latrobe Gallery and the Moses Williams Center.  One room is dedicated to Mary Ellen Hayward, a historian and preservationist who wrote The Baltimore Rowhouse. Other rooms, such as the front gallery on the second floor, have not yet been named.

Jeffrey Kent speaking at The Peale open house, Photo by Glenn Ricci

Happy ending

SM+P Architects oversaw the restoration, with A. R. Marani Inc. and C&H Restoration as lead contractors. They’re acknowledged on a plaque near the front entrance. Peale Center board president F. William Chickering served as the owner’s representative for the rehabilitation.

In addition to BGE, support has come from the State of Maryland; the Middendorf Foundation; the Macht Foundation; the Abell Foundation; The Riepe Family Foundation; the Baltimore City Historical Society; the Delaplaine Foundation; the City of Baltimore’s Department of General Services; the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority; the Michael J. and Patricia K. Batza Foundation; the Baltimore National Heritage Area; the Deutsch Foundation, and the William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund.

Architect Walter Schamu of SM+P said he’s been working for more than two decades to save the Peale and it’s one of the most significant buildings he has helped to restore.

“This is a story with a very happy ending that could have been a disaster,” he said. “It’s a huge, huge hats-off to the future, a municipal museum that tells the story of Baltimore… It’ll certainly be on the map, if it isn’t already. It’s going to be a one-of-a-kind experience in Baltimore.”

Tim Sellers, a Peale board member and University of Baltimore law professor who’s also a descendant of Charles Willson Peale, Rembrandt’s father, said he’s glad to see the building back in use.

“This is one of the great American institutions, but it’s also one of the great Baltimore institutions,” Sellers said. “Think of the resources it took. Baltimore was really aspiring to be a great metropolis in 1814, and this is something you would have expected in a great metropolis.”

In his remarks during the open house event, Kent asked guests to spread the word about The Peale before its grand opening.

“How is it possible that this isn’t the loudest voice in the city? So many firsts,” he said. “Please be the amplifier for The Peale and the stories at The Peale, and help bring us new stories.”

Presentations at Peale Open House, Photo by Glenn Ricci

Inaugural exhibitions

With the renovations complete, The Peale has planned a series of inaugural exhibitions, performances, and events leading up to the grand opening, with in-person activities starting this week. The inaugural programs include:

May 12, 1 p.m.: “Lunch and Learn: From Treasure House to Production House: Stories of the Peale from 1814 to the Future.” Nancy Proctor will give an overview of The Peale and its mission of redefining the role of museums in a webinar that will be broadcast on Zoom and on the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Facebook page. The virtual event is presented in partnership with the Maryland State Archives and the Maryland Four Centuries Project. Free. Registration is encouraged.

May 13, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.: The premiere of “Voices of a Black Butterfly,” the latest film from the Baltimore National Heritage Area, offering “a voice to the real experiences of the ‘black butterfly,’ the city’s often disinvested Black neighborhoods.” Featured guest: Lawrence T. Brown, author of The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America. In person. Admission: $15 to support BNHA Heritage Area Youth Initiatives, including the Accomplished Arts Apprentices program that’s based at The Peale.

May 13 to August 26: Hostile Terrain exhibition. This is a participatory art project sponsored and organized by the Undocumented Migration Project, directed by anthropologist Jason De Leon. It consists of more than 3,200 handwritten toe tags that represent migrants who have died trying to cross Arizona’s Sonoran Desert between the mid-1990s and 2019. The exhibit is co-organized at the Johns Hopkins University by Sanchita Balachandran, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, and Alessandro Angelini, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. Hours are Thursday and Friday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free. In-person.

May 21 to July 16: THE AMAZING BLACK MAN, a solo exhibit by Baltimore artist Kumasi J. Barnett, curated by Jeffrey Kent. The exhibit features hand-painted comic book covers, with a twist: “Each cover is actually painted over top of an older Marvel or DC comic book, replacing the heroes of yesteryear with new, contemporary characters such as ‘The Amazing Black-Man,’ “The Media’s Thug,’ ‘Whitedevil’ and ‘Police-Man.’ ” Hours are Thursday and Friday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free. In-person.

May 27 to June 26: MICA: NOVUS exhibition, featuring work by multidisciplinary artists from the Maryland Institute College of Art who are “defining the future of art.” The opening reception is on May 26 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. After that, hours are Thursday and Friday, 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free. In-person.

June 3 to June 26: Single Carrot Theatre is scheduled to perform at The Peale. Additional details have not yet been released.

August 13 to September 25: Coinciding with the grand reopening, the Peale will present an exhibition called SPARK: New Light. Part of an ongoing collaboration between Towson University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the exhibit will feature the work of 20 faculty members and MFA student artists celebrating the Peale’s reopening with “illuminated and illuminating works of art.” Free. In-person.

More information about shows and programs can be found on The Peale’s website at ThePealeCenter.org.

Header image: The Peale as seen from Holliday Street, photo by the author

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