The Peale is the oldest museum building in the United States. It was built by Rembrandt Peale, a member of the first family of American artists. Through their explorations, scientific investigations, and museum displays, the Peales also contributed greatly to the new nation’s understanding of natural history. Rembrandt commissioned architect Robert Cary Long to design the building—essentially a Federal Period townhouse, with a rear gallery extension. It opened in August 1814. The following month, the British attacked Baltimore in the culmination of their Chesapeake campaign during the War of 1812. Afraid they would burn the city and with it his new museum, as they had the Capitol and the White House in Washington, D. C., Rembrandt, his pregnant wife and their seven children spent the night in the building during the Fort McHenry bombardment, hoping that the British would think it was their residence and spare it.
Peale’s “Museum and Gallery of the Fine Arts” opened in 1814. The featured exhibit at the opening was the famous skeleton of the mastodon unearthed by Rembrandt’s father, Charles Willson Peale. Also displayed were military artifacts and stuffed birds, animals, and fish.
In 1816, Rembrandt Peale illuminated one of his painting galleries with a “magic ring” of pearls of light—carbureted hydrogen gas. That same year he established, with a group of investors, the Gas Light Company of Baltimore. The first commercial gas light company in America, it grew into the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company and Constellation Energy, now Exelon.
Art exhibits were a mainstay of the museum. An 1823 catalog lists the following artists whose works were on display: Leonardo da Vinci, Gainsborough, Breughel, Reynolds, Bosch, van de Velde, Ruysdael, Kauffman, Claude Lorrain, Poussin, Velasquez, Canaletto, Raphael, Sully. The exhibit also included works by Charles Willson Peale, then the foremost portrait painter in the country, and by members of his artistic extended family, Raphaelle, Rembrandt, and Sarah Miriam Peale. Baltimore collectors lent most of the paintings.
Shortly after Peale’s Museum closed in 1829, the City of Baltimore bought the building for use as the City Hall (1830-1875). Following construction of the present City Hall, the Peale Museum building became the Male and Female Colored School Number 1 (1878-1887), which marked the beginning of public secondary education for African-Americans in Baltimore. The Bureau of Water Supply occupied it next (1887-1916). The building was finally turned into rental space for shops and factories (1916-1928).
Subsequently threatened with demolition, the Peale building was rescued by the citizens. The City rebuilt it (during the Depression) and in 1931 opened the “Municipal Museum of the City of Baltimore. . . with the idea of preserving, collecting, and housing therein pictures, objects of art, and other articles reminiscent of official and industrial life and history of the City of Baltimore and of interest to the public generally.” Architect John H. Scarff, secretary of the municipal museum, was in charge of restoration.
The municipal museum enjoyed a longer tenure (1931-1997) than any of the previous occupants of the building. Commonly known as “the Peale,” it was renowned for its collection of Peale portraits and the annual art and photography exhibits. Wilbur H. Hunter, director from 1946 to 1978, built up the Peale collection of artworks. An art historian, writer, and preservationist, Hunter was an acknowledged expert on and tireless promoter of Baltimore’s past and its buildings. Later on, the Peale mounted several excellent exhibits combining history and architecture, such as the nationally acclaimed “Rowhouse: A Baltimore Style of Living.”
In 1985, the Peale Museum was made part of the Baltimore City Life Museums, a consortium of municipal museums and historic sites. In 1992, the BCLM was privatized; five years later it ceased operations for lack of funds. The Peale Museum was closed and its City-owned collection of paintings, illustrations, prints and photographs, architectural drawings, sculpture, furniture, and artifacts transferred by long-term lease to the Maryland Historical Society. The building has remained vacant since then.