Photo generates mystery around Hampden corner

August 02, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

An old photo came across the desk. It showed a set of streetcar tracks, some rowhouses and a curious, unidentified mansion.

The scene was clearly the corner of 33rd Street and Keswick Road, but the pieces of this picture puzzle just did not make sense:

Was there ever a colonial-style house, with a cupola on the roof and a porch supported by 10 columns, at this busy intersection?

This is a real stumper. The photo, taken by the late Sun photographer Edward Nolan in 1947, is of the approach to the old Huntingdon Avenue streetcar trestle, a Baltimore transportation landmark that lasted from the mid-1890s through 1949, when the cars stopped running from downtown, through Charles Village, Remington, Hampden, Cross Keys and Mount Washington.

Today there is little trace of streetcar tracks or the colonial house at the corner of 33rd and Keswick. The spot is a corner of Wyman Park. There's a World War II tablet memorial here and a grassy field. No house. No foundation. Just a typical neighborhood street corner a block south of the Northern District police station. A couple of streetcar wire poles survive. Occasionally, on a hot day, the steel rails pop through the asphalt.

The white house is a riddle. Is it really a house or some sort of temporary structure? There is one clue to the puzzle. There's a plaque across the porch. Its writing is not legible at first, but when enlarged several times, the sign board seems to bear the inscription "Mount Vernon Neighborhood."

This is a valuable hint. Today we don't call the corner of 33rd and Keswick Mount Vernon. The spot is Hampden, although the Remington neighborhood is certainly not far away.

Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood is downtown. The community draws its name from Mount Vernon Place, the east-west squares that fan out from the base of the Washington Monument. The actual Mount Vernon, of course, was George Washington's home overlooking the Potomac River in Virginia.

So what is a mini Mount Vernon doing at 33rd and Keswick? A guess might be that this George Washington house look-alike was built by the Mount Vernon Cotton Mills, the largest employer in the neighborhood.

The Victorian brick mill, nestled deep in the Jones Falls Valley, still stands on Falls Road. There is also a Mount Vernon Methodist Church a block away from the vanished mansion.

Mount Vernon Mills once called itself the largest maker of cotton duck sailcloth in the country. During World War II, when the house might have been constructed, the mills operated seven days a week, 24 hours a day to complete government contracts.

They employed 6,100 people at the peak of wartime activity. Their looms wove canvas for tents, shoes, pontoons, boat covers, tarpaulins, cots, conveyor belts, hatch covers, stretchers, bunk bottoms, knapsacks and sea bags.

Did the textile company build this impressive-looking place, with two chimneys, columns and roof, surround it with a white picket fence and plant a sycamore tree? Any help in solving this picture riddle would be appreciated.

The architecture of the structure seems to indicate it was designed in the 1930s. Old maps indicate it was not standing before 1910.

The house picture mystery poses another question. Is this structure really a house at all? The place doesn't seem to have the proper number of windows a residence would contain. Who would construct such a building 15 feet away from a busy streetcar line? Was the thing an architectural curiosity? An elaborate billboard?

Could it have been an advertising or promotional structure? Was it a boys club or neighborhood club house? Somebody must have the answer to the Mount Vernon house mystery.

The place must have shaken every time the busy No. 25 streetcar went past its front porch. This was a busy streetcar route, one that dated to the 1890s.

The old City & Suburban Railway constructed a huge steel trestle across the Stony Run Valley. The span linked Huntingdon Avenue with the corner of 33rd and Keswick, where the house stood.

The Stony Run Valley is fairly deep and trolley riders recall the spot as being one of the most picturesque on the route.

In 1949 when the streetcar route was converted to buses, the trestle became history.

But the fate of the white house is not so easily explained. What is it and what happened to it?

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