Union Square's festival unveils charms of urban neighborhood


June 14, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

Observers of the Union Square neighborhood in Southwest Baltimore knew something was afoot when city crews put time and sweat into manicuring the old park at Lombard and Stricker streets.

Then came yesterday's flawless weather, and hundreds of curious visitors in search of the Union Square neighborhood's Victorian Garden Festival.

Quilters, woodworkers, cabinetmakers and furniture refinishers demonstrated their arts and wares under spreading maple trees.

Even a quarrelsome ornamental fountain in the middle of the square decided to cooperate and spew forth a column of water. Its plumbing worked nicely, thanks to a new water diffuser donated by the neighborhood.

Jeff Soule, president of the Union Square Association, stated why his neighborhood went to the trouble of organizing its first garden tour: "To reverse the perception that the city in general isn't safe and to celebrate the reasons that people live here."

It was a behind-the-back-fence look at city gardens in Southwest Baltimore in homes built between 1850 and 1883 on Hollins, Lombard and Stricker streets, about a dozen blocks due west of the downtown University of Maryland campus.

"Every time I sit out on my steps I see people I know. This is not like a suburban cul-de-sac," Soule said of his neighborhood, where people began renovating large three-story rowhouses more than 20 years ago.

The old-house renovators worked their imaginations as well as their muscles in this distinctly urban setting.

When Cheryl Wilson was making order out of her once-cluttered back yard, she discovered a cast-iron manhole collar in the debris. It was too heavy to move easily, so she kept the cover off and made it into a planter filled with black-eyed Susans.

"My garden is the first place I go in the summer when I come home from work. It's cool and green and inviting," said Daniel Pearce, of the 1600 block of Hollins St.

The setting for the neighborhood's miniature greenswards was very much Baltimore.

All the lawns, ivy beds, geranium pots and perennial borders were surrounded by overhanging utility wires, old brick walls, narrow alleys, rusty fire escapes, flapping tar paper and crumbling garages.

These city textures imparted a distinctly urban feel to the well tended gardens.

The city background mixed with a gardenscape of bird baths, grape arbors, St. Francis statues, pergolas, patios, goldfish ponds and lavender, impatiens and hosta beds.

A train whistle and bell resounded in the old neighborhood throughout the afternoon.

Residents immediately recognized the sounds as coming from the B&O Railroad Museum, a few blocks away at Pratt and Poppleton streets.

"It's a sound that is very comforting to me. I grew up in Greensburg, in western Pennsylvania, with railroads all around me. I like it when the museum brings in the old live steam locomotives. That sound is like no other," said Francis Rahl, as he stood in the large and colorful garden behind his home in the first block of S. Stricker St.

John Scott, a neighbor who lives a few doors away, explained how he'd found a way to make a charming city. His back yard was enclosed by a sturdy but not very attractive chain-link fence. He got a few pieces of ivy from a neighbor, rooted them and trained the vine on the fence.

"I had to work the ivy through fence links. Before long the whole thing was green," Scott said.

Union Square residents Debby Rahl and Pat Pilling spent the afternoon dispensing iced tea and strawberries in the rear of 1524 Hollins St., the walled garden of the late newspaperman H.L. Mencken, the square's most famous resident.

"We bought a crate of strawberries for $7 from Phil, the neighborhood vegetable man who sets up every Saturday at Lombard and Carrollton. They're ripe and delicious," said Pilling.

Alongside her stood John Dausch, a federal employee by day who on weekends portrays the Sage by donning red suspenders, a white shirt and blue trousers, and parts his hair down the middle.

With a cigar held between his fingers, he gives tours of the house and narrow garden, with its summer house and spot where the Mencken family kept its pet, a mean-spirited pony.

There were bits of local humor too. Inside the glass panel of the front door at 1528 Hollins St. was a sign, quoting a 1931 Mencken diary entry: "The old Schens house, famous for ratty tenants."

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