Tart Miss Miles departs, but her guidebooks stay

JACQUES KELLY

November 18, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

Priscilla Lee Miles, the great lady of Baltimore historic tours, died in her sleep sometime Monday morning. She was 70.

Miss Miles was one of Baltimore's great characters. She had an acid wit, a ready tongue and a willingness to tell all. Which she did, in a pair of small books, one a guide to Roland Park, the other a set of tours through a dozen city neighborhoods.

When no publisher would take on the books she conceived, she hired her own layout artists and printers. Then she walked the finished product to book stores, persuading them to stock her wares.

A few years ago she explained why she started writing guide books. As a young woman she heard Baltimore laughed at as a "big hick town." The jabs hurt her. "It always made me mad. This was my town and I loved it," she said.

She was an instant enemy of city planners and architects who wanted to reform Baltimore and make it conform to the standards of Greenbelt or Columbia. I think the only reason she tolerated Harborplace was that some of its merchants sold her pocketbook-sized guidebooks.

About 10 years ago, when she was living on Tyson Street just off Park Avenue in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, she started writing guidebooks and leading walking tours. She had a perfect setting for writing. Her 1830s home was a miscellaneous assemblage of antiques, chintz slipcovers and old glass bric-a-brac. She did her writing on an old mahogany desk. If her cat scrambled the manuscript's pages, that was no problem.

Many people of her generation often talked about Baltimore's good old days, but Miss Miles did something about it. She gathered historical tidbits, stories, accounts, bound them all together via her typewriter, then saw them printed and distributed. Now other generations can benefit from her wisdom.

She was quite the Baltimore lady. She attended Roland Park Country School when it subscribed to the "fresh air" educational philosophy. Windows were kept open in the winter and students wore felt overshoes atop their brown Oxfords to prevent frostbite during Latin class. She was presented to Baltimore society at the 1941 Bachelors Cotillon.

Her local credentials included a famous uncle. She was the niece of Clarence M. Miles, the lawyer responsible for getting Baltimore its major league baseball franchise -- the Orioles -- in 1953.

For many years, Miss Miles worked as a nurse in hospital administration. When stationed at Spring Grove, she found herself trying to stay awake during long stretches of hospital tedium. Here again, she took up pen and paper to describe Roland Park, where she had lived for so many years.

Typical of the Miles wit was her description of the old Jordan Stabler grocery store in the Roland Park Shopping Center. "It lasted from 1895 until the Depression in the 1930s. It is said the business went bankrupt because so many Roland Parkers were unable to pay their liquor bills."

Of Roland Park she said, "It's a wonderful place to call home. It can also be a state of mind and I had to move away to realize that there were other ways to think, to behave -- even to dress."

Of typical Roland Park houses, she said, "Decor was determined by standards, not by personal taste. Woodwork on the first floor and stairwell in every home was stained mahogany brown. On the second and third floors, woodwork was painted with white enamel. And the walls were papered with large floral patterns." Take that, Billy Baldwin and Rita St. Clair.

She had a conversational, easy style of writing. History was not a yawn when Priscilla did the telling. She also liked to scold Baltimore when she felt the town was in error.

Aiming at the very gray and cold Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Building at Charles and Pleasant streets, she chastised, "It should not be here because it is too large and has spoiled the scale which was set for buildings on Charles Street in 1915. C&P sneaked its building in at a time when morale of Charles Street was very, very low."

She also had no fear of parts of Baltimore many women her age would not have entered. Only recently she wrote to this newspaper to tell of the good people she had encountered in one of East Baltimore's public housing projects.

That was her secret. Priscilla Miles accepted people as they accepted her.

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