Crowds gather for the reopening of The Peale museum on Saturday. Photo by Ed Gunts.

After a five-year, $5.5 million renovation, The Peale has officially reopened as “Baltimore’s community museum.”

More than 150 people gathered on Saturday morning as supporters Noreen Herbert and The Rev. Douglas B. Evans Jr. cut a turquoise ribbon to celebrate the end of construction and the start of a new chapter for the Holliday Street landmark, which first opened almost exactly 208 years before.

What guests saw was a new kind of cultural center for the 21st century, a place that’s intended to showcase Baltimore-based artists and present stories about the city – in a wide range of formats.

Saturday’s grand reopening was “a day that we have been working toward for a very long time,” Nancy Proctor, the Peale’s chief strategy officer and founding executive director, told the crowd.

Before it was shuttered in 1997 as part of the closure of the Baltimore City Life Museums, The Peale “was really the go-to place to learn about Baltimore, its history and its people,” Proctor said.

“Thanks to you and your support, once again The Peale is a community museum for everyone, and it’s open for your programming, your stories, your performances, your authentic Baltimore experiences, so thank you for coming here today.”

Proctor said more than 700 people contributed to the Peale’s reopening in one way or another over the past five years. She made a point of recognizing James Dilts, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and Peale board president who led the effort to save and revitalize the building but passed away in 2018. “Jim, we did it!” she yelled at the end of her remarks.

“We are thrilled to be able to honor and uplift the stories and voices of Baltimore’s communities by giving them a home in the nation’s first museum building with its rich and transformative history, now fully restored and accessible to all,” Proctor said. “We look forward to The Peale continuing to play a dynamic role in the city’s arts and culture ecosystem for another two centuries and beyond!”

First “purpose-built” museum

A portrait of Rembrandt Peale, the artist and gaslight innovator who constructed The Peale museum building. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Named for Rembrandt Peale, the artist and gaslight innovator who constructed it, the building opened in 1814 at 225 Holliday Street and is considered the first “purpose-built” museum in the Northern Hemisphere—the Baltimore Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts.

Designed by Robert Cary Long Sr. and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, 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.

Peale’s Museum and Gallery opened on Aug. 15, 1814. An 1823 catalog lists the works of da Vinci, Gainsborough, Breughel, Reynolds, Bosch, van de Velde, Ruysdael, Kauffman, Claude Lorrain, Poussin, Velasquez, Canaletto, Raphael, and Sully.

Rembrandt Peale, and later his brother Rubens, operated their museum until 1829. Museum trustees then sold the building to the City of Baltimore, and it served as Baltimore’s first City Hall from 1830 to 1878. The museum’s collection eventually went to American showman and businessman P.T. Barnum.

In 1878, the city repurposed the building to house Male and Female Colored School No. 1, one of the earliest grammar schools in Baltimore’s Colored School system. Over the next 11 years, the building was home to a primary school, grammar school, and the city’s first public high school for Black Baltimoreans.

Between 1889 and the 1920s, the building housed Baltimore’s water department, an organ factory, a sign painting company, a machine shop, and a bedspring factory.

Following a reconstruction in 1931, the building became the Municipal Museum of the City of Baltimore, helping introduce generations of Baltimoreans to the history, culture, and traditions that defined their city. It later became part of the network of attractions known as the Baltimore City Life Museums, which closed in 1997 due to financial troubles, and its collections were transferred to the Maryland Historical Society, now the Maryland Center for History and Culture.

Proctor notes that the new Peale will be different from the previous museums that were housed in the Holliday Street building, all of which had permanent collections of art and objects. Under the new structure, she said, The Peale will be a non-collecting museum, the setting for an ever-changing mix of programs and exhibits.

“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,” she said. “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.”

Friends of the Peale

Crowds gather for the reopening of The Peale museum on Saturday. Photo by Ed Gunts.

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 and has leased it to The Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture for 50 years at $1 a year. In 2017, the center’s board launched its capital campaign to fund interior and exterior renovations.

Now that the restoration is complete, 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 contains staff offices. The basement has room for storage. Side and rear gardens provide additional room for programming and events.

One major improvement is the addition of an elevator, the building’s first, installed to make the second and third-floor galleries accessible to people in wheelchairs. It also offers virtual exhibits and programs through a platform known as Second Life.

The Peale is open Thursday and Friday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 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.

A group effort

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 Proctor, 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.

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.

Some of the rooms have been named after people who were part of the building’s past or the city’s past, such as 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.”

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

Besides 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.

The crowd at Saturday’s reopening included many people who are influential in local arts, design and preservation circles and have supported the Peale over the years. Visitors included educator and Contemporary museum founder George Ciscle; city planning director Chris Ryer; architect Steve Ziger; Baltimore City historic preservation officer Jackson Gilman-Forlini; curator and historian Dean Krimmel; and civic leaders Courtney McKeldin, Sandra Sparks, Kim Lane, Monty Howard, Denny Lynch, Janet Heller, Henry and Sarah Fenno Lord, and Robert Kershaw.

Inaugural exhibits

Visitors explore a first floor exhibit at the newly reopened Peale museum. Photo by Ed Gunts.

With the renovations complete, The Peale has mounted a series of inaugural exhibitions, performances, and events, including:

Hostile Terrain, until Aug. 26: 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.

Spark:New Light, until Sept. 25: Part of an ongoing collaboration between Towson University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the exhibit features the work of more than 20 faculty members and MFA student artists celebrating the Peale’s reopening with “illuminated and illuminating works of art.” Opening reception: Sept. 7, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Peale Faces, until Aug. 13, 2023: Baltimore artist and “participatory-history specialist” Lauren Muney hand-cut and installed hundreds of silhouette portraits of Baltimore City residents, which are displayed in several rooms on the first floor, along with stories recorded by people depicted in the silhouettes.

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

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.