Passionate yet low key, it's Cylburn's plant day


May 10, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

Serious Baltimore gardeners know that if the sun rises th Saturday before Mother's Day, get out your straw hats, walking shoes and dreams of an overflowing garden.

Although it gets little advance publicity, Market Day at the Cylburn Arboretum is bustling. Some 9,000 gardeners meandered around the city's rolling wildlife preserve in search of both common geraniums and rare succulents sold outdoors on plank tables.

The scene is unpretentious Baltimore at its best. A woman dressed in a tan wrap-around skirt, madras blouse and well worn Keds approaches a table:

"Do you have any phlox divaricata?" she asks.

"Try the next table," she is told by a woman whose head is protected by a canvas floppy hat. "That's probably considered a wildflower. Our rules are rather lax."

The Cylburn Market Day is the city's greatest low-key plant sale. Cars are parked all over a weedy lawn that stretches along a driveway off the 4900 block of Greenspring Ave., east of Sinai Hospital and south of Mount Washington.

Every other person seems to be nibbling on a rum bun made for the occasion by Hampden's New System Bakery. The rum buns have become the signature food of Market Day, held just once a year by the Cylburn volunteers.

"We sell things for a dollar that nurseries might charge more for. Ours maybe doesn't look too good, but it's been grown here and the money helps keep this place up," says Audrey Sawyer, president of the 500-member Cylburn Arboretum Association.

Cylburn (pronounced Sill-burn) is owned by the city and staffed by the Department of Recreation and Parks. But it has long had a faithful and protective corps of volunteers in the arboretum association.

"I guess this is our 24th Market Day. We get great loyalty. People come back even though we get very little advance publicity. Baltimoreans have a special feeling for this place. They love it and come back," she says.

Today the venerable Cylburn mansion -- the architectural focus of the estate -- looks like something penned by New Yorker magazine cartoonist Charles Addams. And it might be inhabited by Mr. and Mrs. Fred Munster.

The home's high reddish stone walls hold a tower seen on many a Halloween card.

Parts of an east-facing balcony railing are broken. And while the place cries out for a painting and caulking, it retains enough of its dignity to qualify as one of Baltimore's best hidden treasures. This old dowager atop the Greenspring Avenue hill still has plenty of years left.

Cylburn might be a forgotten old ruin were it not for the band of volunteers who conduct nature walks, tend garden beds and protest loudly when developers gather at its property line.

At the height of its fame, the Cylburn estate had its own railroad station (on what is today the light rail line), 32 acres of manicured lawns and more than a dozen servants. Jesse Tyson, who made a fortune mining chrome at Bare Hills in Baltimore County, started building the Victorian villa for his mother. She died before work was completed in 1889, when Tyson married Edyth Johns, a Baltimore debutante many years his junior and considered one of the town's great beauties.

The bride made Cylburn a city showplace. Every summer she traveled to Europe to buy furniture for its formal rooms. The house became celebrated for the lavishness and elegance of its parties. Guests gasped at the attention given its gardens.

Chrome baron Tyson died in 1906. Four years later his widow met Bruce Cotten, a North Carolinian who had fought in the Boxer Rebellion. When Mrs. Tyson summered in England in 1910, her beau followed. They were wed in the village chapel in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.

In the years that followed, the Cottens made Cylburn even more of a showplace. Baltimore society gathered for receptions and musicales in the Louis XV drawing room, with furniture from a Rouen palace and damask draperies. In the summer, guests strolled the lawns lighted with hundreds of Japanese lanterns.

Mrs. Cotten died in 1942 and her husband sold the house and grounds to the city for $42,300. He then moved to much smaller quarters on Hamilton Street, near Charles.

Cylburn became a temporary home for foster children in the care of the city's old Department of Public Welfare. After World War II, it became the city's wildlife center.

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