Mrs. Parker's Gift

GEOFFREY W. FIELDING

September 04, 1991|By GEOFFREY W. FIELDING

Good old Mrs. Parker! She's had the last laugh, after all. Recently a hoard of coins was moved from a Baltimore bank vault to New York where they will be sold at a Christie's auction next week. The proceeds, possibly as much as $350,000, will go to the Cloisters Children's Museum in Brooklandville, just outside the Beltway on Falls Road.

The origin of the coin collection, which includes some banknotes, is obscure. It is thought that it had been formed by a relative of Mrs. Parker in the late 19th and early 20th century. The pieces, which were discovered at the house in 1977 and have lain untouched since, are of high quality. They date between 1880 and 1920.

Mrs. Dudrea Parker or, to give her full married name, Mrs. Summer A. Parker, was one of the last of a dying breed, a genuine Baltimore eccentric. Known as ''Sweetie,'' she would issue daily from her town house on St. Paul Street on her quest to correct Baltimore's problems, notable in the fields of art and architecture.

When the Louvre, for instance, lent the Mona Lisa to the National Gallery in Washington some years ago, she launched a campaign to have the version owned by the Walters Art Gallery declared the original. And when the city decided to tear down the old jail, she was off on a campaign to save it.

Her garb was generally was a sort of gray wool smock over a black blouse, and over the smock a voluminous cape-like garment. On her arm would be a large black pocketbook, within which were wads of brand-new Federal Reserve notes -- ones, fives, tens, etc. These she carefully peeled off with elegant fingers, sometimes, and sometimes not, encased in kid gloves.

Mrs. Parker was a very elegant woman, all five feet of her, except for her shoes, which, nicknamed ''space'' shoes, were molded to the shape of her feet.

Right after World War I, Mrs. Parker and her husband had a vision to build a large, romantic house on a 53-acre piece of property high on a hill overlooking the Greenspring Valley off Falls Road. It was not to be an ordinary house, but one inspired by the Middle Ages and Tudor times, built of stone, with a round tower, great halls, long galleries, a minstrel's gallery, a cloistered garden, a library with artfully concealed ladders and even a windmill.

It was topped by a roof made entirely of Butler stone, an inch thick or more, the support for which came from steel beams. An Oriel window at one corner came from Glen Ellen, the ancestral home of the Gilmor family, destroyed in the making of Loch Raven Reservoir.

The house was furnished with paintings, sculpture, doors, paneling including linen-fold, leather wallpaper, furniture from all over Europe, the quality and authenticity of which were pooh-poohed by Baltimore experts.

Summer Parker died in 1946 and was buried in a crypt at the Cloisters. In the early '60s Mrs. Parker, who had run the house as a non-profit museum for tax purposes, took me on a tour and then offered it to the Walters Art Gallery, where I was in charge of public relations.

Summarily the trustees turned the gift down, though I thought it would be a great place to headquarter the newly-formed Women's Committee. The president of the Board of Trustees, now the Hon. Francis D. Murnaghan, allowed as how the Walters might accept the gift if Mrs. Parker would endow it with $1 million. Later he raised it to 2 million.

After her death and burial alongside her husband in 1972, the estate tried to dispose of the house and land to the Baltimore County government. Various departments heads -- education, parks and recreation and even the library -- visited the Cloisters. They were unanimous in their lack of imagination.

Finally Baltimore city saw the possibility of turning it in to a Children's Museum, dedicated to all facets of children's education.

After much renovation the museum opened in 1978 and was an instant success. Today some 60,000 children annually attend programs at the Cloisters. They learn about the Native Americans, Afro-Americans, Colonial Americans and the cultures of many other lands, such as China and Japan. It is also a great spot for children's birthday parties, and there is an annual Halloween party.

The old house echoes with children -- laughing, singing, reciting, playing. And down in the crypt is ''Sweetie'' Parker, probably as pleased as Punch that once more she has had the last laugh, to the benefit of all the children in Baltimore.

Geoffrey W. Fielding is a Baltimore free lance.

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