Helen Caplan, neighborhood activist

June 02, 1994|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff Writer

Helen N. Caplan, an activist who worked to save her Mount Washington neighborhood from uncontrolled development and who was a friend of President Clinton for 30 years, died Friday of cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She was 81.

After she married Marvin Caplan in 1932, they moved to Mount Washington, the one-time resort where Baltimoreans of the 1880s and 1890s went to escape the summer heat. In the early 1960s when development began to threaten the serene surroundings of the Northwest Baltimore neighborhood, she helped establish the Mount Washington Improvement Association.

The association took on builders of high-rise apartment buildings and residents who turned their front yards into impromptu parking lots for Pimlico Race Course spectators, and sought from the city tougher zoning regulations to hold down population density. The effort saved the neighborhood's characteristic spacious lots from being subdivided for development.

Thomas Caplan, her son who lives in Guilford and is an author, said, "She became interested in historic preservation and zoning issues in the late 1950s and early 1960s and founded the improvement association. She was very fond of Mount Washington."

Mrs. Caplan also worked for several charities and organized the Maryland campaigns of the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society.

She was born Helen North in Howard Park, attended city schools and was a 1932 graduate of Forest Park High School, where she met her future husband in her senior year.

"They fell in love and eloped to Pennsylvania," said her son.

After working in Washington during World War II, she was secretary and treasurer for Oscar Caplan & Sons Jewelers, which had been founded on Howard Street in 1905 and later moved to Charles Street in 1979. Her husband, who survives her, is president of the firm.

Her friendship with President Clinton goes back 30 years, to the days when he was her son's roommate at Georgetown University in Washington.

"When my parents came to Georgetown for a visit and took me out for dinner, they always asked him to come along. He called and spoke to her shortly before she died," her son said.

Mrs. Caplan enjoyed reading and spending time at a second home on Tilghman Island and winters in Longboat Key, Fla.

Other survivors include a brother, Dr. E. H. North Jr. of Duck, N.C.; and a sister, Ruth Pyles Bryce of Sykesville.

Memorial donations may be made to Johns Hopkins Children's Center, 600 N. Wolfe St., Baltimore 21287.

Services were held yesterday.

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