A Conversation with James D. Dilts, President of the Peale Museum

Did you know that the oldest museum building in America is located in Baltimore’s downtown business district? Founded in 1814 by the Peale Family, this historic museum had been forgotten until just recently.

Cara Ober: Where and what exactly is the Peale Museum?

James D. Dilts: The city-owned Peale Museum is located at 225 N. Holliday Street, Baltimore, just north of the Zion Lutheran Church, and diametrically opposite City Hall. It is the oldest museum building in the United States, a National Historic Landmark. It was created by members of America’s first family of artists, the Peales. Rembrandt Peale opened his Baltimore Museum in 1814.

CO: Can you tell me about the history of this museum and why you wanted to revive it?

JDD: In its 200 years, the Peale Museum building served as: Baltimore’s first City Hall (1830-1875); the Male and Female Colored School No. 1 (1878-1887), which marked the beginning of public secondary education for African-Americans in Baltimore; and the city’s municipal museum, commonly known as the Peale (1930-1997). The Peale Museum closed with the demise of the Baltimore City Life Museums. The building has been vacant since then. (There is more on the history of the Peale Museum building and our plans for reviving it in the brochure on our website www.thepealecenter.org).

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CO: How did this process of reviving the Peale Museum come about? Who are the major players involved? How long have you been working on this project?

JDD: The idea to reopen the Peale Museum as a history center began with the establishment of the Baltimore City Historical Society by Judge John Carroll Byrnes in 2001. Internal disagreements over the best way to proceed led to the formation of a separate 501(c)3 non-profit corporation, the Friends of the Peale, in 2008. In 2012, this group joined with some former BCHS members and legally reorganized as the Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture. Romaine Somerville and Sally Johnston, both past presidents of the BCHS, and Buzz Cusack, a long-term BCHS member, were instrumental in the reorganization.

CO: After it is reopened as a ‘history and architecture center,’ what kind of programming will the Peale Museum undertake? 

JDD: The Peale Center program will consist of permanent exhibits (periodically redesigned) on the history of Baltimore and its physical development, on the Peale Museum building and its fascinating 200-year evolution, and on the Peale family of artists and their works. There will be changing exhibitions on architecture, urban planning, landscape, the environment, and communities mounted in concert with our institutional partners: MICA, the Morgan State School of Architecture and Planning, the Johns Hopkins University, and others.

During its lifetime, the Peale Museum was known for three things: natural history, art, and Baltimore history. In its later years, it concentrated on the last two, but we would like to get back to natural history, in the form of the urban environment and how to improve it, for example by a design competition to develop a new paradigm for the Baltimore row house.

CO: What is the goal for the space and who is your intended audience?

JDD: Our goal is to create a history and orientation center for visitors to Baltimore, a place for residents to research, study and discuss the city and its buildings, a new destination to seek out to enjoy a stimulating talk or exhibit and lunch in the Peale Cafe or outside in the garden. The third floor will be rented to a compatible non-profit organization.

Our audience includes those old enough to recall the significance of the Peale Musuem in Baltimore, and a younger audience that employs alternate approaches to learning about and experiencing the city, especially students.

We hope to open the Peale Center in two years, in time to celebrate the bicentennial of the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company. In 1816, Rembrandt Peale lit one of his museum galleries with gas and shortly thereafter founded, with others, the Baltimore Gas Light Company, the nation’s first such enterprise. (Baltimore was the first city in the country to light its streets with gas.)

The Baltimore Gas Light Company became BGE, which still operates under the original charter granted to Rembrandt Peale’s company by the Maryland legislature. Only a handful of American companies can trace their existence back 200 years, and of those probably only one can point to the building where it was essentially founded– in the case of the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company, that was the Peale Museum.

CO: How long is your lease with Baltimore City through? How has the city supported or encouraged this endeavor?

JDD: The Peale Center signed a 50-year, $1-a-year lease with the City earlier this month. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has endorsed the $4 million capital campaign to restore and reopen the Peale Museum building: $2.5 million for design and construction, and $1.5 million to support the Peale Center in the initial years of operation.

“The creative reuse of the Peale, empty for more than 15 years, will not only return a cherished attraction to Baltimore’s thriving cultural scene, it will help to enliven the area immediately surrounding our City Hall,” the Mayor said in her letter of support. A $250,000 City bond for the Peale Center will be on the ballot this November. The City has also committed to putting a new roof on the building this fall.

CO: Can you tell me more about “Free State at the Peale,” a fundraiser and art exhibit opening November 1, 2014 at the Carroll Mansion?

JDD: The Peale Museum’s own bicentennial is this year. To celebrate it, we are hosting “Free State at the Peale,” the first annual art exhibit to benefit the restoration and reopening of the building as the Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture. The exhibit opensNovember 1st at the Carroll Mansion, 800 East Lombard St. In keeping with the Peale Museum’s tradition of showcasing local artists, the juried exhibit is open to regional artists; the general subject matter is Baltimore and Maryland. For the announcement and call for entries, please go to www.thepealecenter.org “Free State.”

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* James D. Dilts is the President of The Peale Center. This interview was conducted by Cara Ober, Founding Editor at BmoreArt.