When I moved to Baltimore from Chicago more years ago than I care to admit, I didn’t know much about the place, so I looked it up in an encyclopedia. (That was then.)
As I recall, I learned that Baltimore was on an arm of the Chesapeake Bay, made steel and was the home of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and H.L. Mencken.
The city actually didn’t sound too interesting, but I needed a job, having been let go from my first one out of college in the advertising and promotion department of a large company.
I didn’t last long in the university position I came here to fill, either. I got fired a lot in those days. This wasn’t altogether bad, I realized later. For one thing, it helped me see what I was unsuited for, advertising and academia being two major contenders. Plus, with a family to support, I found it quite bracing.
Newspaper reporting came next, and thus began my real education in Baltimore. Being a journalist was the best introduction I could have to my new home. I got to meet most of the players and tried to figure out how things worked.
I still don’t know how they work, but I decided that far from being uninteresting, Baltimore had a colorful and truly Byzantine political culture, more characters per square block than any place I’d ever been outside of New York City, and, oh, yes – historic buildings.
All of them good copy.
Like the Wind
I had an epiphany at the newspaper: that it would be a good idea to get out and hustle and do the job right because if I got fired again, it wouldn’t look good on my resume or on the home front. Being of a studious nature, I also spent a lot of time in the newspaper library (the morgue) reading old clips and other materials for background.
I remember pulling down one of Mencken’s “Days” books and encountering Hoggie Unglebower, a Baltimore stable boy, an urban Huck Finn. (“Downfall of a Revolutionary” opens Heathen Days; Mencken considered Mark Twain our greatest novelist.)
I couldn’t put it down until I had read it through. Same with the first chapter of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Here were two Baltimore newspapermen who could write like the wind. Obviously, the place had something.
I subsequently found out that Dashiell Hammett had been a Pinkerton detective in Baltimore. His office was in the Continental Trust building. Hammett’s fictional Continental Detective Agency employed an anonymous investigator known as “the Continental Op.”
The building still stands at Calvert and Baltimore streets with eagle statues over the entrance, although some people view them as falcons (cue to Hammett’s masterpiece, The Maltese Falcon, set in another port city).
Hammett’s literary ancestor was Edgar Allan Poe, who invented the detective story.
As a poet, Poe took his knocks — Emerson called him “the jingle man” — but he was a formidable critic himself. (Poe referred to the Transcendentalists as “frogpondians.”) Baudelaire, France’s greatest poet, was Poe’s early champion and translator.
Here in Baltimore, Poe’s grave and house today attract many foreign and domestic visitors. The Mencken House does also.
Learning from Buildings
The city-owned Poe House (open week-ends) and the Mencken House (open occasionally) are not on the list of 15 historic properties that the city is now surveying for possible disposition to new stewards, but they represent the power of historic structures to evoke our collective civic memory and pride.
You can learn about a city from its authors, artists, and musicians, and also from its buildings. Like books, they are tactile objects capable of transporting you, in the sense of inspiring intense emotions.
Architectural historians speak of “reading” a building. Buildings convey their own form of knowledge and their own stories, through interpreters, of the people who designed, built, inhabited and used them.
The Peale Museum is on the list of 15 buildings. It is the oldest museum building in the United States. Built by Rembrandt Peale, a member of the first family of American artists, it opened in 1814.
When the British bombarded Fort McHenry in September that year, Rembrandt spent the night in his new building, with his pregnant wife and seven children, hoping it would pass for a residence so the British wouldn’t burn it as they did Washington, D.C.
(We all know what happened then. The next day, after seeing the formidable earthworks, cannon, and militia arrayed at what is now Patterson Park, the British decided that invading Baltimore wasn’t such a jolly good idea after all.)
The Peale, formerly the city’s municipal museum, has been closed for 15 years. Suggestions for its reuse include lawyers’ offices, a restaurant, or a boutique hotel.
We can do better. Baltimore is the only city of its size lacking an institution that tells the story of its people and their greatest accomplishments over the years.
Lack of Money or Vision?
The mansion at the Crimea, Orianda, is also on the list. One of the sons of Ross Winans, who manufactured locomotives for the Baltimore & Ohio, the nation’s first railroad, had it built in 1857 as a summer home. The son and his brother contracted with the czar to construct and equip the first Russian railroad, from Petersburg to Moscow, hence the name of the estate.
The Outward Bound program uses the mansion and other buildings at Crimea, now a city park, and has worked to maintain them over the years.
What seems to be lacking is energy, invention and imagination.
Another listed building, the No. 6 Engine House in Oldtown, is a rare surviving volunteer company firehouse in Baltimore. It was built in 1854 by the Independent Fire Company, one of many such volunteer fire companies in the city back then.
They were rowdy outfits that “ran with the machine” and often fought with rivals for the honor of extinguishing a blaze. (The real motive was profit: insurers paid premiums to volunteer companies that put out a fire at one of their insured properties and if a building lacked an insurance company’s fire mark, it was sometimes left to burn.)
The firehouse is also architecturally interesting. It represents an early use of structural cast iron. William H. Reasin, one of its architects, was a pioneer in this new building technology that Baltimore helped to develop.
He had previously worked with James Bogardus on Baltimore’s famous Sun Iron Building and he designed the Maryland Institute’s original structure, which had a cast-iron library. But the fire museum in the No. 6 Engine House is open just once a year.
What is its future?
These and Baltimore’s other historic buildings are part of who we are as citizens. The administration claims Baltimore lacks the money to maintain them and therefore seeks new tenants, but money is not the real problem.
What seems to be lacking is energy, invention and imagination. Certainly the city that sent the British packing, invented the railroad in America and aided in introducing a new commercial building technology can find a way to maintain and celebrate its irreplaceable and priceless physical heritage.
– Jim Dilts is the author of The Great Road, a history of the B&O Railroad, and co-author of A Guide to Baltimore Architecture with John Dorsey. He is president of Friends of the Peale, a non-profit group seeking to reopen the Peale Museum as a center for Baltimore history and architecture.