G&A Restaurant hopes to save Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum

Andy Farantos has made a slew of personal relationships with the blue-collar residents of Highlandtown as manager of the family-operated G&A Coney Island Hot Dogs restaurant on Eastern Avenue.

During the past year he has leaned on the support of those relationships to help salvage one of Baltimore’s most prized historic landmarks:  the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum.

Cut off from $85,000 of annual city funding in 2010, the 203 Amity St. residence that Poe occupied from 1833 to 1835 is in danger of being closed to the public.

“If we get rid of it then what do we have?” Farantos said. “We’ve abandoned the history of a great writer.”

The house is being maintained with the help of donations and income grossed by off-site events such as the bicentennial celebration in 2009 and advanced screenings of the film The Raven  starring John Cusack.

Mark Redfield, director of events for the Poe House, said those funds are likely to run out soon.

“The general simplistic solution is for the city to just put the $85,000 back,” Redfield said. “The Poe House is the poor child caught in the middle of this.”

Not wanting to see the house shut down, Farantos decided to act. In honor of the author and poet’s beloved legacy, he set up a fishbowl on the counter of his restaurant for donations benefiting the museum.

His customers have been especially generous in aiding the cause.

“When it came to Baltimore, they were cool about it,” Farantos said. “In the beginning it really took off. People were paying for their meals and putting the balance into the fund. All I have to do is explain what the jug if for and they’re glad to pitch in.”

Brandy Wilkey, a waitress at G&A has observed the generosity of customers and Poe supporters firsthand.

“There’s a table of ladies who bring in fistfuls of pennies on a frequent basis,” Wilkey said.

The Poe House needs $85,000. (Photo by Erik Hoffman)

Contributions from G&A are going directly toward the Pennies for Poe campaign. Rafael Alvarez, president of the Edgar Allan Poe Society, resurrected the fundraiser to collect funds and aid the preservation of Poe’s former home. (Alvarez also writes for the  Baltimore Post-Examiner.)

“On the day the city announced that they didn’t have enough money to keep the Poe House open, I happened to be giving a talk to a bunch of 7th and 8th graders at the crossroads charter school in Fells Point,” Alvarez said. “While talking to them I remembered that more than 100 years ago, local school kids collecting pennies to buy a tombstone for Poe’s grave on Greene Street.  I asked the kids if they wanted to start raising pennies to help save the Poe house and they cheered: ‘YES!'”

Alvarez first asked the Pratt Library if he could set up fish bowl in all the library branches to collect pennies, but rules prevented that from happening. He then went to the First Mariner Bank, but they also turned him down.
“Finally, I thought – who can I ask who can just make a yes/no decision without having to jump through bureaucratic hoops for some sort of official decision? Who is the captain of their own ship? My answer was my good friends – the Farantos family at G&A Coney Island Hot Dogs in Highlandtown, a Baltimore landmark since 1927.”
Alvarez approached Farantos with the idea of placing the collection bin at his restaurant while the two were meeting over breakfast one morning.

“He told me everything that was happening with the Poe House and I said I’d be glad to help,” Farantos said. “Raffy is a great guy. We’re good friends and I didn’t want to see the Poe House shut down any more than he did.”

So Farantos put up the fish bowl.

Redfield said the efforts made by G&A, Farantos and Alvarez are welcome support in the monumental task of rescuing the home. He sees it as a sign that people do care about their city and its history.

“What they’re doing is great,” Redfield said. “The city drops the ball and the people pick it up.”

Farantos and the staff at G&A raised more than $300 for Pennies for Poe during the past year. He said these contributions show the compassion Baltimoreans have for their city, but there’s still a long road ahead in raising the necessary funds to finance the Poe House.

“The government won’t subsidize Pennies for Poe,” he said. “People are hoping that someone comes forward and makes a generous donation or that the state realizes what a mistake this is.”

Even those involved in producing the movie The Raven have not donated a cent to the pennies campaign. The movie generated $7.2. million during its premiere weekend.

A Potential Solution

Along with the efforts made by Farantos and other local supporters, hope may come in the form of another historic Baltimore structure, the B & O Museum.

Consultants appointed by city officials have suggested that the two museums be operated together with tours starting at the B&O Museum. Vans would then shuttle visitors to the Poe House.

The consultants are preparing a report highlighting their proposal which will be turned in during May. The B&O is considering the partnership, which would have an estimated $140,000 start-up cost.

“It’s a little ambiguous what will happen and how fast it will happen,” Redfield said. “City governments don’t work quickly and human beings don’t work quickly.”

Regardless of the outcome, Farantos will continue to place the collection bowl on the counter.

“We have regulars like Ms. Maddie, Ms. Linda, Ms. Sandy and Mr. Ron who are always contributing,” he said. “People come in here and develop a trust. If they haven’t been around, their grandparents brought them here. That’s the kind of place it is. It’s the perfect place for Baltimoreans and it’s the perfect place to raise awareness of a cause like this one.”

(Feature photo of Andy Farantos,  manager of G&A Coney Island Hot Dogs. Photo by Zach Sparks.)