Remembering A Literary Lane

BACK TRACKS

February 10, 1991|By Carleton Jones

Today, you can almost hear the subway's rumble as you walk along the new paved alley behind the glistening, new Bank of Baltimore building on Baltimore Street. The ancient alley, now dolled up with street lamps and barricades to protect pedestrians hurrying to the Charles Center rail station, is actually Bank Lane, a good 200 years old.

Backtrack to the year 1815. The troublesome but brief war with Britain is over. Baltimore, though recently besieged, is bulging with energy and assets brought home by the privateer clippers that fleeced the British merchant fleet during the war.

There's a new sense of national identity in the air. A new sense of a nation has been born, and the theme is "Let's make sure to suppress the treacherous New England moneybags who tried to secede from the United States and cancel out the American Revolution."

There's a new sense of national literature in the air, too. No mood could give more pleasure to a hearty and hospitable Irish man of letters called William Gwynn. Gwynn comes to town as a newspaper owner and editor and soon builds a colonnaded mini-mansion behind the Baltimore Street business rows, right where Bank Lane lies today.

He calls the place Tusculum, after a name in Roman mythology, one source reports.

There are good years coming in the expanding town, already boasting 50,000 or so souls. The good years will last at least until the 1830s, when violent arguments over the national financial system will set off riots -- Baltimore's favorite 19th century way of expressing stern disapproval.

On the right night, visitors to Tusculum's part of town (just northwest of Calvert and Baltimore streets) can hear sounds of revelry within the mansion.

Inside, you are likely to find an all-male gang of revelers that makes up the closest Baltimore ever came to having a literary club in the style of new and old England. Gwynn brings them together around the tobacco canisters and the punch bowls and they are hoisting toasts merrily here and there. For a time, they even run their own literary journal.

In the crowd occasionally is Harvard College luminary Jared Sparks, who had come to Baltimore to be ordained at the famous Unitarian service where William Ellery Channing would define Unitarian faith.

Also among Tusculum habitues are two men destined to write the verses to two of the most immortal clinkers of 19th century sentimental song: Sam Woodworth ("The Old Oaken Bucket") and John Howard Payne ("Home, Sweet Home").

Gwynn's perennial guests dubbed themselves the Delphian Club, and luminaries of the day flocked to get in the act -- legal giant William Wirt, who trained eminent men; attorney William Pinckney, whose practice dominated many Supreme Court cases of the day; John Pendleton Kennedy, author of the novel "Swallow Barn," and often characterized as the James Fenimore Cooper of Maryland; and John Neal, who created the nation's first nationally important sporting magazine.

People from the arts came to Gwynn's Delphian soirees, too, including the great portraitist Rembrandt Peale and John E. Hall, chronicler of the arts of Palestine.

It couldn't last forever. Gwynn went broke and friends had to bail him out with a public appeal. In the last week of January 1891, Tusculum and five 18th century elm trees that had surrounded it were razed to make way for the huge Equitable Building, a survivor of the 1904 fire that today is downtown's most noble specimen of Gilded Age office architecture. *

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