The Unsinkable Maritime Museum
by Elvia H. Thompson
No public building in the area suffered as much damage from Hurricane Isabel as the McNasby's Oyster Packing Plant building, home of the Annapolis Maritime Museum. Although the 85-year old structure in Eastport was devastated, there may be a silver lining in the story because the loss of the Museum facility has galvanized community support for preserving and showcasing Annapolis' maritime heritage. Museum board members, city officials, and influential members of the community are taking a serious look at where the museum effort goes from here. The emerging vision is ambitious and far-reaching.
There's something ironic about the fact that a property dedicated to preserving Annapolis' maritime heritage would be critically damaged by the effects of a fickle storm on the Chesapeake Bay. The Museum, which had begun several years before in the adjacent Barge House, expanded to the McNasby's building after leasing the space from the city in 2001. The eatery had become a popular lunch and dinner destination where locals went to eat crabs on the deck, hear concerts and see maritime movies, and enjoy a spectacular view of the Bay.
The Museum also became a popular space for shows by maritime artists, and several exhibits had been created and displayed in the building and the Barge House displays included a study of the boat designs of Melbourne Smith, a retrospective of the photographs of Marion Warren, and a display about the African-American watermen of Eastport and their families. The Maritime Museum, the City of Annapolis, and the Chesapeake Chapter of the United States Lighthouse Society had just collaborated on an exciting proposal to take over management and stewardship of the Thomas Point Lighthouse from the Coast Guard.
In August, the Museum unveiled Before There Was GPS: The Navigation Genius of Capt. Philip Van Horn Weems. Just a week or so before Hurricane Isabel hit, it opened an ambitious exhibit with related events entitled Schooners on the Chesapeake Bay. The Museum was just beginning to be a "happening" place and a community resource. But Mother Nature had other plans.
The day before the hurricane, volunteers moved furniture and artifacts to McNasby's second floor as a precaution. What didn't fit was either stored at a volunteer's home or stacked on top of tables at what was thought to be a safe height. At the end of the day, the dozen or so workers jokingly drew lines on an inside wall by the tiny Museum office, taking bets on which line would prove to be Isabel's high water mark. Little did they know that the lines, and the wall they were drawn on, would be washed away by the storm.
McNasby's, built only a foot or so above the average high tide line, had more than six feet of water inside. Museum Director Jeff Holland said it was over his head during the height of the surge. But the critical damage was likely done by debris in the water, which acted like battering rams and knocked huge holes in the cinder block walls. The docks were completely washed away. (Some of the picnic tables from McNasby's deck were found two blocks away on Eastern Avenue.)
The little Barge House suffered extensive floor, drywall, and electrical damage as three feet of water slammed into the building. Oddly, just next to the Barge House, the workboat exhibit of Lil' Hess and its protective shed suffered only minor damage. But, a few feet away, the deadrise workboat Miss Lonesome, in the midst of a restoration project, was lifted up by the surge and unceremoniously dropped on the ground, splitting her open like a sliced onion. This was heartbreak for wooden boat expert Bruce Morse, who had lovingly worked on her for months.
More than a Museum
In the exhausting and sad days after the hurricane, all Museum board members agreed that while the physical plant was in critical condition, the Museum's heart and soul were alive and well. Plans were made to rally the community for support and take the show on the road.
And hit the road it did. The Weems exhibit is now installed at Weems and Plath's store on Eastern Avenue. The schooners exhibit has been displayed at several locations, including the Captain Salem Avery House Museum in Shadyside. A party that had been planned for McNasby's in honor of the crews of the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race turned into a fund-raiser hosted by Eastport Yacht Club. Support from the public poured into the renamed "Renaissance Party," and several thousand dollars were raised. Board members were elated at the response.
Buoyed by the community's interest, Board Chairman Buck Buchanan is moving out smartly on the future of the Museum. He is about to announce the establishment of the Annapolis Maritime Heritage Foundation, a non-profit umbrella organization designed to coordinate fundraising and administration of the Museum, the Annapolis Maritime Hall of Fame, the Thomas Point Lighthouse partnership, and several new initiatives.
The big question, of course, is whether McNasby's and the Barge House are sufficiently sound to be repaired. According to City Administrator Bob Agee, as of press time, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is in the midst of making that determination. City actions will hinge on that decision and the amount of financial assistance that FEMA offers the City.
"We are all very supportive of the Museum and of the work that's been done," Agee said. "The Museum is a valuable part of the fabric of Annapolis and we want to see it continue." The current circumstances have no bearing on the pending lighthouse proposal, he added.
As FEMA studies whether the buildings can be saved, Museum directors are proceeding as if there will be a building on the McNasby's site. Plans call for environmental exhibits, maintenance of the existing Chesapeake Bay Gateways site, a building program for small boats, a Thomas Point Lighthouse exhibit, and the Maritime Café. How much this will cost and how it will be paid for remains to be seen.
For the short-term, the priority is finding a high-visibility storefront location, preferably on Main Street or Dock Street, for temporary exhibit and office space for the Museum and the Foundation. Board members are also looking for locations, such as art galleries, stores and schools, where exhibits could be set up on a temporary basis.
Museum Board Chair Emeritus Peg Wallace is philosophical these days, commenting on the institution that was been built largely due to her efforts over the last 10 years. "Well, as sad as it is to see the devastation," she said, "we saved the exhibits and artifacts. The hurricane has given us a new opportunity. I know the community is behind this Museum. Now we can build something that will last well beyond the next big hurricane, in 100 years."