Here's mud in your eye, Mr. Buckler

February 22, 1997|By Antero Pietila

AS THE WEATHER breaks and springtime hordes of tourists return to the Inner Harbor, let's raise a real Baltimore bicentennial toast to a forgotten mover and shaker, Thomas Buckler. Bottoms up, here goes!

For several decades, starting in the 1840s, Thomas Buckler was a much sought-after Baltimore trouble-shooter. He recommended ways to improve housing conditions. He warned that the city was spending so little money on its fire-fighting preparedness that a catastrophic conflagration would be inevitable. (He was proved right in 1904).

In 1859, Thomas Buckler urged that Federal Hill be leveled and shoveled to fill the Inner Harbor. Otherwise the basin of muddy waters would continue as a source of epidemics and Federal Hill would remain ''an unhealthy looking tumour upon the lower limb of the city, covered with mean dwellings and unsavoury manufactories,'' as a consultant put it.

A ferocious controversy ensued, according to Sherry H. Olson's ''Baltimore: The Building of an American City.'' Property owners were aghast at the proposal's cost. An engineering study disappeared before City Council action.

Thomas Buckler accused Johns Hopkins and other ''mysterious busybodies'' of skulduggery. Later, he wrote that while he had liked many Baltimoreans as individuals, ''past experience has taught me that, in their collective or municipal capacity, they are the most silly, unreflective, procrastinating, impracticable and perverse congregation of bipeds to be found anywhere under the sun.''

Another toast, please!

Over time Thomas Buckler was forgotten. But a century later his cause was taken up by interstate highway engineers. In the 1960s, they proposed to burrow an expressway through Federal Hill and reduce the Inner Harbor into a puddle crisscrossed by highway bridges and ramps.

They stopped the road

Dozens of homes in Federal Hill, Otterbein and Fells Point were condemned. Meanwhile, Leakin Park, West Baltimore's urban forest, was to be bisected by an expressway. After a fierce battle, community activists managed to stop the road in the 1970s. The Inner Harbor was saved.

There is a monument to the proposed Leakin Park leg, though. It is a stretch of I-270 that runs from Greene Street for one mile to the Fulton Avenue Bridge, where it abruptly stops. It is truly a road that leads nowhere. Yet it ended up costing $50 million and resulted in the demolition of 971 houses, 62 businesses and a school.

Back to the Inner Harbor. Even though two major additions -- the Port Discovery children's museum and the Power Plant -- will not be open for another year, there will be plenty of new things to see this spring and summer.

The long-awaited Hall of Exploration at the Columbus Center will open May 3 with its array of Disney-designed geek-gawks. Next door, Harbor Inn at Pier 5 -- the ill-fated one-time Harrison's Inn -- is slated to open after a total overhaul. The hotel will have two restaurants and a cocktail lounge. Its 65 rooms will have a new dramatic look. ''We will be the premiere wedding, bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah location in town, no doubt about it,'' promises Gary R. King, who redesigned the hotel.

Harborplace's Light Street Pavilion will be in full operation by summer. Along the reconstructed Key Highway, look for the grand opening of Globe Brewing Co. and the Little Havana restaurant.

And next door, the Museum of Industry will inaugurate a 500-seat open-air waterfront pavilion for concerts and other functions. It will have one of the best views of the downtown skyline, thanks to those ''perverse'' Baltimoreans who did not allow Thomas Buckler to fill the Inner Harbor.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 2/22/97

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