The home at 203 Amity Street had fallen on hard times: previously a city-funded museum, the unassuming row house was shuttered in 2012 after the city of Baltimore decided it couldn’t afford to fund it. That the home still stood at all owed a debt to its famous former inhabitant, whose reputation had helped save it from the wrecking ball decades prior. Last year’s cash crunch at Edgar Allan Poe House was the sort of predicament the home’s namesake would have known well.
But a year after the closure, the former home of author and poet Edgar Allan Poe has opened to the public again, thanks to a newly formed non-profit, Poe Baltimore, which plans to run the facility on donations.
Baltimoreans insist Poe left his mark on the Charm City more than any other place he lived. And they have some evidence to back up the claim: Poe lore is deeply woven into the city’s identity. Visitors can take in an NFL game by the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens, dine on Chesapeake Bay specialties–crab dip and crab cakes–at the Annabel Lee Tavern, charter a yacht christened The Raven, or wander through the laneways of Fell’s Point, where Poe was found delirious in the days prior to his mysterious death, 164 years ago today.
Poe spent much of his life in poverty. He lived with his aunt, Maria Clemm, and her family in the small house on West Amity Street from 1833 to 1835; it’s believed he wrote his first true horror story, Bernice, in a small bedroom on the third floor. He left for Richmond, Virginia in 1835, and although he never lived in Baltimore again, the 40-year-old spent his final days there in 1849.
Only half of the building’s original structure remains, and Poe House was nearly lost entirely in the 1930s during the construction of a new housing development. The small house today feels as claustrophobic as some of Poe’s writing, with stairs so steep and narrow they are almost perilous. It is in these tight quarters that Poe met Virginia Clemm, his cousin and eventually, his wife.
Poe House was saved from demolition in 1941 by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. It opened as a museum in the 1970s, and was operated by the city for decades before being stripped of its annual funding of $85,000 three years ago, when Baltimore faced a deep budget crisis. The museum finally ran out of reserve funds and closed its doors last fall.
Following the closure, the city spent $180,000 to consult on ways in which the house could reopen, money that also went towards its renovation. “As a general museum it would have a hard time surviving, but as part of a larger organization that had a broader mission of the Poe legacy, it would stand a real chance. That was how Poe Baltimore began,” said board president Kristen Harbeson.
It took a year of planning to revive Poe House, previously unchanged since the 1970s. The updated house has benefited from a clean-up, a new coat of paint and an overhaul of the exhibits to reflect the author’s tumultuous life: from his orphan beginnings to the unusual circumstances surrounding his death. Poe Baltimore aims to pay tribute to his legacy, not just the house. “They created a space where you could think about Poe, where you could learn a little bit about Poe, but more than anything experience where he was,” said James Smolinski, a Poe Baltimore board member.
The organization now has permanent stewardship of the home, which will be open weekends for the remainder of the month before closing for the winter, with a planned reopening in spring. Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake–whose father grew up in the neighbourhood, aptly named Poe Homes–made it official last weekend, in a ceremony marked by a cognac toast and the exchanging of a stuffed raven.