Union Square discovered Hollywood: H. L. Mencken's neighborhood will enjoy some welcome attention with the filming of a movie starring Albert Finney and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

June 12, 1996|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

A few weeks ago, Duane Chadwick was working in her back yard in Union Square when Hollywood came calling.

It seems that the home and garden she and her husband, Jack, have lovingly cared for evoke a pre-Civil War flavor that's perfect for the movie "Washington Square."

The Chadwicks and all of Union Square ended up welcoming the production crew to the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood, hoping that Hollywood attention will make local people -- especially city government -- enthusiastic about historic preservation again.

"It shows that it's important to save things for future generations to enjoy," said Ardebella Fox, who with her husband, Melvin, has restored 15 Union Square houses, including the Chadwicks', over the past 33 years.

In a week, the Chadwicks will move out of their house while a movie company sets about creating Hollywood illusions in the 150-year-old manse they've called home for 11 years.

"It's a strange feeling to suddenly have somebody wanting to put your house in a movie," said Mrs. Chadwick.

"I don't know exactly what they're going to do, but I have a feeling you won't recognize it" once the set designers finish with the house, she said.

"Washington Square" is an adaptation of a Henry James short story starring Albert Finney and Jennifer Jason Leigh and produced by Caravan Pictures.

The residents of H. L. Mencken's old neighborhood have sometimes exasperated City Hall over the years with unflinching resistance to change that might mar Union Square's 19th-century character.

No zoning change request goes unchallenged for folks who want to open businesses on Union Square. "We don't need a sub shop on the corner" and its accompanying trash, said Debra Rahl, a neighborhood activist.

"A lot of us are weary from battling for something that's so special to Baltimore. We're hoping this movie is a springboard for the city to create a comprehensive plan" for the historic area, said JoeAnne Whitely, who helped found the Union Square Association in 1967.

Such a plan would include a formal inventory of area buildings by the city and require property owners to comply with the city building code and historic preservation standards, she said. The goal would be to rid the area of vacant eyesores, Whitely said.

Union Square is bounded by Pratt Street on the south, West Baltimore Street on the north, Schroeder Street on the east and Fulton Avenue on the west. It is on the national and city registers of historic places.

It was Whitely who about 20 years ago told then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer to have the city put "historically correct" pink-tinted sidewalks in Union Square Park. Whitely found the native Italian craftsmen who could do it and the city paid for it, she said.

Whitely and neighbors rejected city landscape and architectural plans for the park as too modern. Schaefer let them substitute

their plans.

Fighting blight

Some residents say the Hollywood attention has validated their 30-year mission to stave off urban blight and modernism.

A spokesman for the Maryland Film Office, which lured the production here, agrees.

"If those homes had had aluminum siding and Formstone on them, they [movie producers] would have said, 'This is going to be a lot more work than we want to do,' " said Jack Gerbes, deputy director of the film office.

Gerbes said he submitted photographs of Baltimore sites, including Union, Lafayette and Mount Vernon squares, for consideration by the production team.

The Baltimore locations vied with international competitors, including Vancouver, British Columbia, to be the film site, Gerbes said.

After a visit to Union Square and the Chadwick home, movie officials agreed that Union Square's rowhouses and the wide green of the park, with some sprucing up and special effects, would bring the feel of the 1840s to the silver screen, Gerbes said.

"They thought it was a canvas they could work with; it has all the basics" they were looking for, Gerbes said.

Even after the lights and cameras are gone, park improvements made for the movie will remain, including newly seeded grass and pruned greenery, repairs to the fountain, which is ringed with bronzed titles of Mencken books, and repairs to electric street lights that resemble antique gas lamps and to some costly wrought-iron fencing.

The movie folks also are to provide around-the-clock security guards for several days to protect the park during shooting, which is expected to rid the area of unwelcome visits by those engaging in the drug trade and prostitution.

A number of area buildings are under contract to have their exteriors shot. But the Chadwick house apparently is the only one chosen for interior and garden scenes. The Chadwicks would not reveal how much they are to be paid, but said it isn't an extravagant amount.

This month, two major motion pictures will be shot in the Baltimore area. Nine others have been filmed here in the past

three years.

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