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Bringing Babe Ruth’s birthplace into 21st century

ANNAPOLIS — Major renovations to the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum, put on hold during the recession, are on the way if the state agrees to extend a grant to the organization that maintains the downtown Baltimore landmark.

The General Assembly provided the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation Inc. with a $250,000 consolidated capital bond loan in 2005 for renovations to the home where Ruth was born on Feb. 6, 1895.

Ruth’s childhood home, a city-owned rowhouse at 216 Emory Street in the Ridgely’s Delight neighborhood, has been operated as a museum since 1974 along with three adjacent rowhouses. The houses’ brick façade dates to the 1850s.

Aside from a two-story addition built in the late 1970s to allow space for public stairwells and restrooms, the buildings have not been seriously renovated since the foundation took over management. The building is not ADA accessible, and it lacks adequate meeting space for the foundation’s board and officers.

The foundation had planned to start a multimillion-dollar fundraising drive in 2005 to cover the cost of renovating the museum, but a weak economy slowed the foundation’s progress, and the state money was never spent. The grant is slated to expire June 1.

“We got to a point where we were kind of set to go with a plan, and then the economy tanked,” said Michael L. Gibbons, executive director of the foundation. “We looked at each other and said we can’t do this.”

HB 1354, sponsored by Del. Sandy Rosenberg, D-Baltimore City, extends that deadline to June 2015. The bill was heard for the first time in a House Appropriations Committee hearing last week, and Rosenberg said he expects the legislation to pass without opposition.

Assuming it does pass, a renovated Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum would open in July 2015, Gibbons said.

“A lot of people around baseball feel it is hallowed ground,” Gibbons said. “It’s the birthplace of [baseball’s] greatest star. … I think we may have the wherewithal to get this thing done. We’re confident that it can go forward.”

If the state legislature approves the grant’s extension, Gibbons said the foundation would need to only raise about $3 million to complete its renovations. A similar grant from Baltimore City has already been extended, a Department of Legislative Services analysis said.

In addition to adding a side entrance on Dover Street, equipped with a wheelchair ramp, an elevator would be installed to allow full access to the three-story museum. A two-story addition in the rear of the row house would also be increased to three stories. The new third floor would be used as meeting space.

The museum would also be equipped with a sprinkler system for fire suppression, and emergency exit stairs.

Museum exhibits would also be renovated, Gibbons said. The foundation, which also runs the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards, wants to create “the Babe Ruth experience,” a three-dimensional exhibit that uses projectors to play footage of actors playing the part of Ruth and his family members.

“It will look like [the actors] are standing there,” Gibbons said. “I think it will capture the imagination of young people.”

The foundation has hired Ohio-based The Novis Group to determine how to best raise money for the renovations, said Gibbons. The foundation would likely seek large gifts rather than trying to run a grassroots campaign.

“Not only can we draw support and garner support from the local community, but we have a wonderful national [fundraising] opportunity because it’s Babe Ruth,” Gibbons said.

Gibbons also said the strength of the foundation’s board should help in fundraising efforts. John Moag, former chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, chairs the foundation’s board of directors.

“There’s lots of good people on our board,” Gibbons said.

If all goes according to plan, Gibbons wants the foundation to announce the start of its campaign on Feb. 6, 2013 — the 118th anniversary of Ruth’s birth. The campaign would be completed by December 2014, the year that marks the 100th anniversary of Ruth signing his first professional baseball contract with the Baltimore Orioles.

Construction would start in January 2015 and last six months. Baltimore-based Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. developed the construction plan with the foundation in 2005 and 2006, before the project was delayed.

“We want to bring the birthplace up into the 21st century,” Gibbons said. “Baltimoreans will re-engage with the project and with the attraction.”