The case of the vanishing iron gates confounds many

Jacques Kelly

April 22, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

One afternoon this winter, I looked out my front window and blinked in surprise. The iron front gate that had been swinging open and shut for 100 years was missing. I looked next door. My neighbor's gate had vanished too.

Who would steal a heavy iron gate? Was this a yuppie crime perpetrated by larcenous renovators who wanted a Victorian garden ornament? Or was the gate stolen by thieves who would sell it for scrap metal?

I reported the loss to Northern District police, who told me this type of theft occurs often. A special target is copper rainspouting, police said.

In talking to my neighbors, I discovered that on the day of my loss, thieves tried to take a heavy iron gate from a house at 29th and St. Paul streets. It was attached to a neighborhood landmark -- its former residents had survived the sinking of the Titanic. That same good fortune seemed to have prevailed. The thieves tried to pry this gate loose, but failed. The owner has since had the gate more securely attached.

As winter turned into spring, Bolton Hill became a target. A gate disappeared from the side yard of Memorial Episcopal Church at Bolton Street and Lafayette Avenue. Another one vanished from a garden mews in the 200 block of Lafayette.

Several other gates disappeared from the 1600 block of Bolton St. These wrought iron gates were well worn and covered with layers of black paint. The owners of these gates were properly annoyed. The gates had performed faithful service, keeping out dogs and trash blown by the wind, and decorating the front of 1870s Baltimore rowhouses.

One zealous resident visited local scrap iron dealers but could find nothing. I did the same with local antiques shops that often sell Victorian gates and fences. I saw plenty I liked but none was mine.

Then the thieves became more brazen. On a Saturday night, burglars broke into a large vacant house at Calvert and 28th streets and helped themselves to at least eight stained-glass transoms and windows.

The windows that were stolen -- Edwardian-style designs with rectangles of colored glass with stylized roses -- were known throughout Charles Village. The house sat on the corner and had a side bay window that extended over 28th Street. Many people walked by and admired this display of 1908 craftsmanship. But no more.

The same time that this glass was removed, thieves helped themselves to a stained-glass transom in the Union Square neighborhood.

A neighbor who lives in the 2600 block of N. Calvert St. came home to find a heavy cast-iron urn missing from the front porch of his house. "It's been there since 1907," was his reaction. It was set in the concrete coping by the home's builder. When this happened, it occurred that these thieves knew exactly what they were looking for and were not lifting worthless items.

Interior designer Rita St. Clair is known for the brass hand railing on her marble steps in the 1000 block of N. Charles St. It holds the local record for architectural thefts. She's had to replace it three times.

On one of the occasions, the police made an arrest. The brass rail was placed in the police department's stolen property room. Guess what? James Peterson, an executive of the design firm, reports, "The police went to look for it and found it had disappeared from there, too."

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