The Grand Old Days Of Charles Street

BACK TRACKS

August 04, 1991|By Carleton Jones

Many people expect a Charles Street rebirth or at least a shot in the arm for the historic byway, now that municipal studies have urged a return to two-way traffic along its passage through downtown.

Since the Barnes traffic "revolution" of the 1950s, Charles has headed resolutely and insolently northbound, giving the tail light to what was once the city's finest shopping district.

Today's Charles Street merchants hate the resultant parking-proof pattern of traffic. And who can blame them for feeling ignored? But the fact is that the downtown area of Charles Street has never been ignored, though as a setting for parades it has always played second fiddle to such commercial glories as Baltimore, Eutaw and Howard streets. In the good old days, a whirl around Charles Street was obligatory, but that seems now lost to tradition.

Here are some 18th and 19th century backtracks into the grand old avenue, which, except for two humiliating doglegs -- one around some elegant Guilford homes, the other around what was once a smelly tobacco factory -- drives straight as an arrow through city history:

1776-'77 or thereabouts -- Citizens rush to the high ground where the Washington Monument stands today on a rumor that British barges are "ascending the river towards the town." Below them is a cataract of gullies that will become Centre Street but which in the 1770s drains the hillside of "Howard's woods," as Mount Vernon is then called.

1812 -- They are called "squares" instead of blocks back in those days (a bit of localese that seems to have vanished). On a square of South Charles as it runs west of the inner harbor is the home of Commodore Joshua Barney, naval hero. On the first square of North Charles, east side, is the home of one Johns Hopkins, attorney at law.

1815 -- About 30,000 citizens come to Howard's woods to see worthies lay the foundation stone of the Washington Monument.

1835 -- Furious rioters, upset with banking scandals, sack the Glenn mansion at Lexington and Charles streets.

1837 -- The Benjamin Cohens have the first gaslit home in the city, and in their mansion on the southwest corner of Saratoga and Charles streets they throw the city's first costume ball, honoring local debs, Eliza and Olivia Gill.

1840 -- North Charles becomes the social promenade of the Chesapeake region, upstaging hoary Annapolis. "Not to walk on Charles Street at least once a day was, for an antebellum audience, an oversight and a lost opportunity," according to a turn-of-the-century society editor. (The street will remain a dating gallery for 40 years, haunted by belles and beaus.)

1850 -- If you want to know what's going on around town, call in at Broadbents, the smart women's store on Charles between Fayette and Lexington streets. It's the gossip capital of city and state, says Amy D'Arcy Wetmore, a social historian writing at the turn of the century.

1855 -- Charles Street stops at Madison Street and becomes a dirt road.

1861 -- Two homes along Charles apparently house cells of Confederate women, just like Aunt Pittypat's in Atlanta. They are on the southwest corner of Charles and Franklin streets and the second house from the corner of Saratoga and Charles streets, west side. The latter is home of the Charles Carrolls.

The girls "sew for the [rebel] prisoners," according to a report of the day. Mr. Carroll has plenty of needle power -- five daughters. They'll miss "Handsome George" Gibson, who will go south to join Col. Lisle Clark's regiment in Richmond. Dr. Bill Howard will go south, too, to fight for Dixie, leaving his superb Greek temple of a house on the northeast corner of Charles and Franklin streets. He won't come back. The Yankees won't get him; Virginia, where he decides to settle after the war, will.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.