When the first official World’s Fair in the United States – the Centennial Exhibition – closed in Philadelphia in November 1876, the Maryland delegation chose not to abandon their state exhibit hall. Instead, the wooden building (described as “a cross between English Tudor and Swiss Chalet”) was disassembled piece by piece, transported to Baltimore, and then reassembled on a shady hillside in Druid Hill Park. The structure was well received in its new incarnation. “It is the opinion of those who have seen the building at Philadelphia, and since its re-erection here,” wrote a correspondent for The Sun on April 17, 1877, “that it is far prettier in the present situation than among so many other buildings at the centennial.”
The Maryland Building is one of only two buildings to survive the exhibition; the other is the Ohio Building. By recommendation of Baltimore’s Park Commission, it became a museum “of interest and attraction to the public” that housed “curiosities that have been gradually collecting in one of the basement rooms” of the adjacent Mansion House. The museum opened in April 1877 with Otto Lugger, a trained naturalist, in charge.
For the next many years, Professor Lugger presided over an increasingly eclectic collection that included the basement curiosities as well as assorted donations from eager citizens and the Maryland Academy of Sciences. Thus, visitors could browse “a handsome and increasing ornithological collection” in one room, costumes and ceramics in another room, and a center hall full of fire-fighting equipment (including an elaborately decorated hand pumper donated by General George Washington to the Friendship Fire Company of Alexandria, Virginia.)
When the Park Board granted use of the Maryland Building to the Natural History Society of Maryland in 1936, most of the curiosities were removed and distributed around town to the Baltimore Fire Department, the Fort McHenry Museum, and the Maryland Historical Society. In their place came exhibits dedicated to local flora, fauna, geology, and archaeology. Inside the walls of the old wooden building a new museum took shape, one that showcased rocks, minerals, and fossils; birds, butterflies, reptiles, and mammals; and, most amazingly, the thirty-foot-long reconstructed skeleton of a baby blue whale that had washed ashore in Crisfield, Maryland in 1876.
In the 1970s, after a 40-year run, the Natural History Society moved out of the Maryland Building so that the operating arm of the Zoo, the Baltimore Zoological Society (BZS), could move in. By this time, the Zoo had fenced in its campus and since the Maryland Building was on the inside of the fence, it made sense for it to become part of the Zoo. A 1978 renovation outfitted the building with offices and an auditorium, allowing it to function as both BZS headquarters and a public education space. Ever since, the Maryland Building has served as a busy work space for Zoo staff.
The Maryland Building underwent a second major renovation in 2009. With great care and attention paid to the structure’s historic restoration, it was given a new lease on life, and, in 2010, the project earned a prestigious Maryland Preservation Award from the Maryland Historical Trust.