Preserving Maryland Memories


September 22, 1991|By CARLETON JONES

The year 1934 was one of the most troubled in U.S. history. About every fifth American male was unemployed. In remote areas, starvation was not unknown and bread lines formed in thousands of towns and cities.

In one sense at least, however, '34 was a year when some things took a turn for the better: It marked the beginning of the end of Maryland's neglect of its architectural heritage. In May, a young Eastern Shore architect, Henry Chandlee Forman, brought out a book called "Early Manor and Plantation Houses of Maryland," a 271-page pictorial and diagrammatic review of the state's Colonial buildings. Even that long ago, about 90 percent of the 50,000 pre-Revolutionary buildings in the state had disappeared.

Forman, a Princetonian who trained in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, was among the first to identify and catalog the range of early Maryland buildings, and his book with its 320 photographs became an overnight bible for architects and the preservation-minded.

That same year, Don Swann Sr., a nationally known etcher of landscape and architectural scenes, was talking to his son Don Jr. Suddenly he said, "Let's do a book on historic manors of

Maryland . . . we'll cover every county in the state." Don Jr. seemed mildly appalled by the concept and the work it would involve. "How are you going to do it?" he asked. "Watch me," answered Dad.

The two then began a five-year effort that would bring forth the RTC first scholarly etching collection of Maryland's remaining Colonial masterpieces. The book, because of its relatively limited appeal, would have to be privately financed. Fortunately, the idea caught the attention of some big-money people, including J. P. Morgan Jr. and John D. Rockefeller III, who both became patrons for sizable donations. An aunt knew Eleanor Roosevelt, and the first lady came into the picture, ordering a copy of the first edition as a present for Franklin Roosevelt.

For five hot summers, the duo traveled by car around Maryland. "We saw about 3,000 houses in one summer," says Mr. Swann Jr., a Baltimore resident best known for his longtime work as a theatrical producer.

"We read all the books on the subject of Maryland architecture we could find and we made a point of finding the oldest person in the county to fill us in on [the] history of the places," Mr. Swann Jr. remembers. The younger man was researcher-author of the book and was permitted to write exactly 500 words, "no more, no less," for the captions.

The book, titled "Colonial and Historic Homes of Maryland," appeared in 1939 and was welcomed by the historic-minded. The Swanns took the first copy to the White House to present ceremoniously to FDR, but weren't invited in. "But they took the book, anyway," says Mr. Swann Jr.

More than 50 of the scores of homes in the original Swann book are now on the National Register of Historic Places. About five of them no longer stand. One was hauled away to the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.

By the time of the death of Swann Sr. in 1954, books from the original 200-copy run were quoted at $350. Today, their value is ++ in four figures.

An original of the Henry Forman volume runs $150, and a recent reprint by John Maclay will cost about $65, according to an estimate by the Kelmscott bookshop of Baltimore. (The book is already out of print.)

Mr. Swann Jr. followed in the footsteps of his father and became a prominent etcher. He is proud of the five-year effort to save Maryland memories. "No etcher has attempted such a stupendous task," he says of his dad's work.

Etchings by Don Swann Sr. and Jr. will be shown at the Fells Point Festival, Baltimore, Oct. 5-6; the Williamsburg Winter Fair, Williamsburg, Va., Oct. 11-13; the Holiday Arts & Crafts Festival, New Windsor, Nov. 1-3; the Cranberry Mall Mart, Westminster, Nov. 9-10; and the Friends School Hollyfest, Baltimore, Nov. 23.

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