For Roger and Ellen Sherwin, the first floor view from 12 W. Mount Vernon Place is the top attraction. Their house pet, an aristocratic, part-Persian kitty named Marlene (after Dietrich) agrees that it's just great. She will perch by the hour in the front window overlooking Baltimore's most elegant square, attracting admirers as she switches her bushy tail and watches neighbors strolling the square.
"Marlene leads a big social life in the front window . . . we've met more people that way," says Ellen Sherwin, a southern Marylander and one-time Manhattan model and decorator who returned to Baltimore in the 1980s. Mrs. Sherwin, with the help of her husband, a University of Maryland medical scientist, has redone No. 12's huge formal rooms and its lavish, Parisian-style garden, over a period of seven years.
The Sherwins own the four-story building -- plus its apartments, plus two carriage houses in the rear. No. 12 is a house that needs old-fashioned grandeurs of important scale, of a type that the city's Howard and Read street antique stores have furnished them over the years. "We also make deals at auctions," Mrs. Sherwin adds.
The mansion is so old (circa 1840) that it can legally acquire a chain of names (say the Gordon-Pleasants-Berman mansion) without straining. The wealthy Alexander Gordons built it, the cultured J. Hall Pleasants lived there for many decades, and during the 1950s and 1960s its floors housed the modern art collection of Dr. Edgar Berman, Democratic Party gadfly, social commentator, author and medical innovator.
Within this envelope the Sherwins have placed large but sparely grand pieces of original and reproduction furniture of traditional type, blended with modern and classic artworks.
Ellen Sherwin says those front windows overlooking the square are what sold the house for her. The recent city improvements to the square (new lighting, planting and statue restoration) has made the view an exceptional experience -- and a special treat at night, she says.
Perhaps the second allure was the garden. It divides the home from its two smart carriage houses, which adjoin the back of the Mount Vernon Club property.
The Sherwins have built around existing garden treasures, including, among the unique, a blue juniper that screens the garden from the windows of the Stafford House apartments and an enormous female magnolia. "The Mount Vernon Club has the male, and it sheds; ours doesn't," says Ellen Sherwin.
Queen Elizabeth grandiflora roses, curly willows, pyracantha, ostrich ferns, hosta and rhododendrons have found a home in the large, shady, paved garden area, helped by an enormous east wall which moderates the light values of the haven. Here Mrs. Sherwin erected old marble steps bought for $20 from a nearby job site, and upended them as pedestals for antique sculptural pieces. Together with wrought-iron railings and furniture, including both an original settee and companion chairs copied by Robinson's Foundry in Alabama, the sculpture gives the garden its romantic, European character.
The garden's boxwood descends from cuttings from her grandfather's private graveyard in southern Prince Georges county near Croom, a strain of English box that originated from box that decorates the grave site of the first Episcopal bishop of Maryland.
Glass walls lead indoors from the garden to a small office-library area (tucked under a rear stairway) and to the formal dining area. In this entry, a baroque mirror tops a hall table on which rests a signed French bronze lamp of the art nouveau period. It boasts a Tiffany-type shade. Above, in the two-story stairwell leading to the bedroom floor, is a 9-foot "probably Belgian" floral tapestry said to have been owned by the tenor Enrico Caruso.
The Sherwin dining room blends statuesque 18th century painted wooden Chinese horses on pedestals by David Weisand with a modern-style, glass-topped dining room table by James Balder, Baltimore designer. A latticework of verdigris-green nails supports the large glass top and creates an open, airy feeling to the room.
A library wall of handsome bindings is an unusual touch in the formal dining room. The Kelmscott shop of 25th Street helped assemble the sets, Mrs. Sherwin says. An overpowering, mid-Victorian fireplace with mirror was moved from the front (drawing room) area and re-installed as a dining room feature. A baroque mirror over a Louis XV sideboard is a major feature in the dining area and houses family holloware.
The most formal room in the home and the scene of Marlene's leisure hours is the drawing room, with its unusual 19th century, square-sided and upholstered sofa and its Louis XVI gilded side chairs and handsome French clock bought at a Towson auction. Gilded mirrors in the Adam style and a bergere of Louis XV style add elegance to the area.