Examinations of doctor, lawyers and cast-iron buildings

BOOKS & AUTHORS

January 26, 1992|By James H. Bready

The name Machen spans three generations of the practice of law in Baltimore -- Arthur W. Machen, each time. What will distinguish the third, present-day Machen is his additional literary standing, as the author of "A Venerable Assembly: The History of Venable, Baetjer and Howard, 1901-1991." VBH is one of this city's three or four legal powerhouses; as of last September, it had 667 employees, 124 of them partners, at a half-dozen locations.

Mr. Machen himself, emerging from nearly 40 years as a VBH partner, somehow does not speak in legalese. Rather, he profiles individuals, outlines actions at law and tells anecdotes with wry, concise delight. Disaster deters him not: The Baltimore Trust Co. crashes once again, H. Vernon Eney's new Maryland Constitution is rejected by the people, VBH gets into savings-and-loan trouble. Primarily, VBH has been business-oriented: Times Mirror Co.'s 1986 purchase of the late A. S. Abell Co., which published The Sun, was the firm's largest dollar assignment, to that point.

In-group Baltimoreans will race through "A Venerable Assembly" for its names and yarns. More profitably, young people will turn to the book for its wonderfully real evocation of upper-floor law. And other attorneys around town, behind frozen smiles, will know that the standard for writing in-house history is higher now.

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Nearly 30 years after his death, Alfred Blalock is still a name revered, at Johns Hopkins Hospital and far beyond: one of surgery's all-time heroes. But impressions blur. In his new biography, "Alfred Blalock: His Life and Times" ($22), William P. Longmire Jr., himself a noted surgeon, finds Dr. Blalock more proud of other things in his Johns Hopkins career than his famous blue-baby operative technique. More, the picture of early-life obstacles overcome by Dr. Blalock could hearten a present-day med student.

Yet it is a wrench, in the Yousuf Karsh portrait of Alfred Blalock, to see the celebrated physician holding a lighted cigarette.

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The most handsome book of1992 so far is "Baltimore's Cast-Iron Buildings & Architectural Ironwork" (Cornell Maritime Press, paperbound, $19.95). James D. Dilts and Catharine F. Black as editors, and J. Scott Howell, David G. Wright, Phoebe B. Stanton and Robert L. Alexander as essayists, have lavished care, research and illustration on the project. Their book is basic to any serious collection of Baltimoreana.

The whole nation's remaining old, restored "buildings with total facades of cast iron" are down to four. One is in Baltimore, the 1871 Marsh and McLennan Building at 300 W. Pratt St. -- no wonder Mr. Dilts and Mrs. Black put it on the cover. Once, Baltimore had more than 100 iron-fronts; today's count is about 10, in states of dilapidation.

Iron goes back, but the nation's first successful iron-producing coke furnace did not open, at Lonaconing, until 1839. Railroad needs then brought the iron industry roaring to life; yet builders, too, were big customers, for both architecture and decoration. And Baltimore's foundries were among the best.

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Additions to 1991's Maryland book census in last month's column: "The Johns Hopkins Medical Handbook & Directory: A Compendium of the 100 Major Medical Disorders of People Over the Age of 50"; "Genealogy Is More Than Charts," by Lorna Duane Smith; "University Recruits -- Company C, 12th Iowa Infantry Regiment, 1861-1866," by Charles B. Clark and Roger B. Bowen; "Eyewitness to Infamy: Oral Memoirs of Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941," by Paul J. Travers; "Pearl Harbor Recalled: New Images of the Day of Infamy," Tom Freeman paintings, James P. Delgado text.

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Chatter: After a year near Bethlehem, Helen Winternitz, formerly of The Sun, is the author of "A Year on the West Bank: Living in a Palestinian Village" (Atlantic Monthly Press, $21.95). . . . Has anyone a copy of "The Early Years of Amateur Base Ball in Baltimore," by William Ridgely Griffith (1897)? .

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