(This is the first of a three-part series on the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum.)
Life, as seen through the lens of literature, has a funny way of presenting paradoxes.
In his immortal work, “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens lays out the life of Ebenezer Scrooge in three divergent parts. Scrooge sees his past, present and ponderable future in the sweep of one sleepless night. Shaken, the miser finally comes to his senses and vows to live his remaining time as if each day is Christmas day.
Conversely, Edgar Allan Poe’s protagonists often go mad in justifying their actions.
The Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum is going through a difficult transition. Two years ago, the brick edifice on Amity Street, which is an international attraction, had its $85,000 a year funding cut from the Baltimore City budget. Efforts to keep the museum open by raising private funds and arousing public awareness have pulled thousands of people into the mix, from school children, tavern owners and restauranteurs to local poets, actors, athletes, authors and Hollywood stars.
Talk to fans of Poe, to politicians or patrons at pubs including the Annabelle Lee, and all agree that something must be done to keep the museum open. The paradox is that in seeking a viable, long-term solution, access to the attraction may be severely curtailed. Even worse, lifelong supporters and dissenting voices are apparently being shown the door.
As with Dickens’ skinflint, to truly understand where the Poe House stands today, one must go back in time. A brief history (paraphrased here) found on the E. A. Poe Society website provides the following information:
The little house at 203 Amity Street was presumably built around 1830 for Charles Klassen. Late in 1832 or early in 1833, Maria Clemm moved from East Baltimore to Amity Street. Her household included herself, her ailing mother, Elizabeth Cairnes Poe, her daughter, Virginia, and her nephew, Edgar Allan Poe.
Maria Clemm rented the house primarily with money from her mother’s government pension, earned by Elizabeth’s husband David Poe Sr., a veteran of the American Revolution. Edgar A. Poe left this house in the fall of 1835, moving to Richmond, Va., to edit the Southern Literary Messenger.
About the same time, Elizabeth Poe died and her pension stopped. Unable to cover the rent, Maria had no option other than to move. Edgar’s cousin, Neilson Poe, who lived in Baltimore and had married Virginia’s half-sister, offered to take in Virginia and Maria. Edgar, fearing that he was losing his little family, sent his young cousin Virginia an impassioned letter, proposing marriage. She accepted and in October 1835, Virginia and Maria joined Poe in Richmond.
In the 1930s, homes in the area, including Poe’s, were set for demolition to make room for the “Poe Homes” – a public housing project. After a public outcry, the house was spared and control was given to the E. A. Poe Society. The Poe Society, which opened the home for tours in1949, still oversees the building with assistance from Baltimore’s Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation (CHAP).
The Poe Society maintained and managed the house for some 30 years. Displays, “… include glassware and china belonging to John Allan (Poe’s foster father), a telescope reputedly used by Poe, Poe’s sextant, a traveling desk (or lap desk) he presumably used at the University of Virginia and a full-sized color reproduction of the only known portrait of Poe’s wife, Virginia, done at her death in 1847. A set of Gustave Dore’s 1884 illustrations for Poe’s “The Raven” are featured on the second floor. Some furniture of the period, although not Poe’s, is also exhibited, primarily on the top floor.” (From the E.A. Poe Society website)
Attrition and aging within the society compelled the group to seek help with manning the museum. For years, volunteer guides (many of them college students) helped to staff the house. In the late 1970s, the society turned control of the property over to the City of Baltimore. A major restoration was undertaken at that time and by 1979, the now restored house had a full time curator in Jeff Jerome. Today, the museum is operated under the aegis of Baltimore’s Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation (CHAP).
Along with keeping regular hours at the museum and staffing the house with a group of dedicated docents, Jerome was the face of the Poe Museum. The curator organized several popular Edgar Allan Poe related events, including annual dramatic presentations of the author’s more famous works, usually done during Halloween and birthday celebrations at Westminster Hall and Burial grounds (the old Presbyterian church on West Fayette and Green Streets where Poe is buried).
There were also Cask of Amontillado Wine Tastings with The Wine Coach – Laurie Forster, film festivals featuring movies that were (sometimes loosely) based on the works of Poe, and an art opening/fund-raiser which showcased a Raven inspired work by the artist Gaia. Jerome also oversaw a vigil at the burial grounds where the mysterious “Poe Toaster” annually appeared.
In October 2009, the museum and Westminster Hall shared in a unique dramatic event, as Poe was at last given a funeral befitting his beloved place in Baltimore history. A final birthday tribute, which featured readings of Poe’s works by several popular actors including Mark Redfield and Tony Tsendeaus and by Johns Hopkins alumni and Addams Family star John Astin, was held in March of this year.
In May, Jerome played host at the museum to paranormal investigators, The Ghost Detectives. The telecast of that investigation made international news, particularly because of the displeasure the “spirits” seemingly had with the home’s precarious situation. Since losing its funding, the Poe House and Museum has remained open, owing largely to the proceeds from the annual Halloween and Poe Birthday celebrations and through donations collected over the years from a caring and concerned public.
The Edgar Alan Poe House and Museum has withstood the waves of time. Its distant past provides a peek into the life of a multifaceted, misunderstood man, while modern accounts depict the dedication of the numerous people who guided the museum into the 21st century. Its present is a story of the struggle to sustain the arts in austere times; of political wrangling between powerful personalities over historic preservation; of the problems and promise of a changing neighborhood on the cusp of urban renewal and of a world famous landmark whose status remains in flux.
(Note: As of this writing, the Poe House and Museum remains open. For hours and other information, visit the Poe website.
In part two of this series, The Baltimore Post-Examiner will look at the present position of the Poe House, as its reigns are about to be handed to an ephemeral ghost of things yet to come.
Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A one-time newsboy for the Evening Sun and professional presence at the Washington Herald, Tony’s poetry, photography, humor, and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore!, Destination Maryland, Magic Octopus Magazine, Los Angeles Post-Examiner, Voice of Baltimore, SmartCEO, Alvarez Fiction, and Tales of Blood and Roses. If you notice that his work has been purloined, please let him know. As the Good Book says, “Thou shalt not steal.”