Edgar Allen Poe house in Baltimore possibly closing: budget cuts can cut us off from history

An interesting piece on Sunday in the NYT: Poe Museum Is Threatened With ‘Nevermore’. (Since I started this draft, the title has changed: Fiscal Woe Haunting Baltimore Poe House).

From the piece:

For a second year city leaders have chosen not to subsidize a museum in the tiny house where the impoverished Poe lived from around 1833 to 1835, a decision that means it may have to close soon.

Since the city cut off its $85,000 in annual support last year, the house has been operating on reserve funds, which are expected to run out as early as next summer. In the coming months consultants hired by the city will try to come up with a business plan to make the Edgar Allan Poe House financially self-sufficient, possibly by updating its exhibits to draw more visitors.

But the museum sits amid a housing project, far off this city’s tourist beaten path, and attracts only 5,000 visitors a year.

As is noted in the piece, $85,000/year is practically nothing for a city the size of Baltimore — a city of over 600,000 people in a much larger metro area. That sort of small investment (about 70 cents per capita per year) in a tourist attraction and draw for school groups inevitably means more visitors spending more time in the city. That means more restaurant sales, a few more hotel room nights, etc., etc. That modest investment would almost certainly bring far more economic activity to the city than the cost.

But municipalities around the country are in budget-cutting moods, and Baltimore has already decided to quit funding the house museum.

And that becomes about more than just cost-cutting — we’re cutting history. The Baltimore Poe House and Museum contains important exhibits about Poe and gives visitors a chance not only to glimpse a couple of years of Poe’s life, but to see the cramped world of Baltimore of the 1830s. Like our Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home here in Savannah, the Poe house is not a reflection of the grand wealth so often memorialized by house museums in America, but a clear window to more ordinary — and in Poe’s case more extraordinary — lives. And that’s not even taking into account the mystery of coming so close to the physical world of a great writer — walking in the same places he walked, looking out the same windows.

As the Times notes, Poe lived in the house for only a couple of years, but what a couple of years those were. He lived with his young cousin Virginia whom he would later marry (when she was just 13) as well as:

his aunt and Virginia’s mother, Maria Clemm; his grandmother, Elizabeth Cairnes Poe; and Virginia’s brother, Henry. When Poe moved in, he had just been kicked out of the United States Military Academy at West Point. He had published three books of poetry by then but received little recognition or payment for his writing.

But while living with the Clemms, who had little money, Poe turned his attention to short stories and had his first taste of literary success, winning $50 in a contest sponsored by The Baltimore Saturday Visiter for a story about a sailor who dies after his ship is destroyed by a storm and finds himself cast onto a vessel seemingly manned by ghosts. Poe was most likely living in the small third-floor bedroom when he wrote his first true horror story, “Berenice,” about a man engaged to his sickly cousin who develops a morbid obsession with her teeth. After she dies — or appears to, since later it is implied that she was buried alive — he digs up her body and pulls them out.

As sympathetic as I am to the plight of the Poe house, I feel compelled to add a couple of other observations.

First, I think there are some very real questions about the future and longterm sustainability of literary museum houses generally. From the NYT:

Several cities boast Poe-related sites. Richmond, Va., where he spent much of his childhood, has an Edgar Allan Poe Museum. In Philadelphia a house where Poe lived with Maria and Virginia from 1843 to 1844 is owned and operated by the National Park Service. Poe Cottage, in the Bronx, where Poe spent the last three years of his life, is owned by New York City but operated by the Bronx Historical Society. (It is currently closed while undergoing a major restoration, paid for largely by the city.)

So that’s four sites devoted to Poe. There are two devoted to Flannery O’Connor. There are Hemingway museum houses in Key West, Oak Park, and Cuba. There are two Twain sites in Missouri (Hannibal and Florida) as well as one in Hartford. I could go on and on — and I’ve probably left some out. Given that few museums support themselves from visitors alone, what’s the best model for these literary house museums?

I was also struck by the amount that Baltimore is giving the Poe house. That $85,000 does not include visitor revenues or product sales, or donations. Meanwhile, here in Savannah, the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home (from which I recently stepped down as president) has never taken any government funding, has a total annual budget of a little over $40,000, and is open 18 hours/week compared to 14 for the Poe house. The Poe house even shuts down entirely from mid-December to early March. The Poe house gets about twice as many visitors per year as the O’Connor Home does, but revenue from visitors still covers a good portion of our budget. No, we do not have fulltime staff, but we’re afloat and have been steadily expanding the museum and its programs in recent years.

So I agree that the Poe house should get funding from the city — and I certainly believe that defunding such an important site in the middle of an extended downturn left the house high and dry. In this environment, making the transition from public support to private support is just about impossible.

But there is a future out there for museum houses like Poe’s. It involves private funding and broad-based community support.

I’ll have more on this in a future post.

1 comment for “Edgar Allen Poe house in Baltimore possibly closing: budget cuts can cut us off from history

  1. August 19, 2011 at 10:40 am

    Good post, Bill. I read the Times article also. You are absolutely correct about the necessity for private funding and broad-based for historic sites like the Poe house and our two O’Connor homes (Savannah and Milledgeville). Hats off to the dedicated corp of volunteers in Savannah, like you, who have sacrificed and worked so hard for over 20 years to restore, preserve, and provide access to Flannery O’Connor’s Childhood Home. Thank you!

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