The past is rich, the future waiting To reclaim its glory, Seton Hill needs to retain its children

Neighborhood profile: Seton Hill

September 21, 1997|By Charles Belfoure | Charles Belfoure,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The funny thing is that all these cars drive by on Paca Street," remarked Tom Kravitz, president of the neighborhood association, "yet no one knows they're in an historic neighborhood."

Although small in size, Seton Hill is indeed a neighborhood unto itself, centered around a very important part of Baltimore's and the nation's history.

Roughly bounded by Orchard, Franklin, Monument and Eutaw streets, it is both a Baltimore and National Register historic district made up of some of the city's earliest gable-roofed rowhouses. They surround St. Mary's Park, the site of the first Roman Catholic seminary in America.

In 1791, the French order of Sulpicians arrived in Baltimore and started the seminary in the One Mile Tavern, an inn on Pennsylvania Avenue, which at that time was one mile outside the city limits.

As the seminary prospered, new buildings were constructed. The most significant building that still stands is the Seminary Chapel, designed by the French immigrant architect Maximilien Godefroy in 1808. Considered the earliest neo-Gothic design in the United States, it is one of Baltimore's most important architectural works.

On June 16, 1808, the very day Bishop John Carroll was dedicating the new chapel, a destitute widow from New York with five children arrived at 600 Paca St., right next door to the chapel.

The neighborhood's namesake, Elizabeth Anne Seton, who had been disowned by her family for converting to Catholicism, had come to Baltimore to open the first boarding school for Catholic girls. A year later she took her vows as Mother Seton, foundress of the Sisters of Charity, then moved to Emmitsburg.

The house on Paca Street is now the Mother Seton House, the former residence of the first American to be canonized as a saint. The neighborhood also became important to African-American heritage when Mother Mary Lange founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious community of African heritage in the world, in 1829. On Orchard Street is the Orchard Methodist Church, one of the oldest African-American churches in the city.

The Sulpicians went on to build a five-story seminary on Paca Street, which many Baltimoreans remember even though it was torn down in 1975. In exchange for the cost of the demolition of the building, the Sulpicians donated the seminary grounds to the city to become St. Mary's Park, which is regarded as the center of Seton Hill.

As one walks into the 7-acre park, which is used primarily for passive activities such as strolling, reading and walking dogs, the noise of the city that surrounds it fades away. The seminary closed in 1969, but the St. Mary's Spiritual Center stands next door to the Mother Seton House.

The center provides a series of retreats and workshops for parish groups and ministers.

Some groups come to the center or, as the director, the Rev. John MacMurray, said, "We deliver," meaning that they'll take programs to groups within 50 miles of the city.

In transition

Seton Hill is an urban neighborhood in transition. Although it is relatively free from drug traffic and violent crime, concerns remain about the quality of life. The neighborhood, which has an even mix of homeowners and renters, can be a hard place to raise a family.

"Once people have children, they opt to move out," noted longtime resident Randy Herbert.

Paca Street is the main avenue of Seton Hill, with the intimate alleys of George and Jasper streets to the east and St. Mary's Street to the west. Many of the narrow rowhouses have been renovated and are owner-occupied. Aside from the historic rows, there is some contemporary infill housing, including an extension of Seton Mews in 1986 on Eutaw Street.

Along with Seton Mews, new housing has been created at the edges of the Seton Hill neighborhood, including the Landmark Apartments on the site of the old Afro-American newspaper offices, Franklin Court with 39 apartments, and Monument Place, a condominium project.

Chesapeake Commons, with rental units created in the old City College building at Howard and Centre streets, is an important anchor for the neighborhood.

Monica LaVorgna, property manager for Chesapeake Commons, stressed that there are lots of people who work in the city and would like to live in the city as well.

"The key is the safety issue. If people feel secure, then they'll live downtown," she said.

The future of the old Mayfair Theatre on Howard Street and the Congress Hotel on West Franklin is of critical concern to Seton Hill. If those vacant properties are turned around, it would be a huge boast to the neighborhood, according to Tom Kravitz.

The Ravenwood Nursing Home at Paca and Franklin is undergoing a $3 million renovation. The biggest problem for the area now is the former St. Joseph's Seminary building on Pennsylvania Avenue. It had been a nursing home until recently, but is vacant and for sale. Attempts are being made to turn it into housing.

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