How many times have you driven mindlessly past it, that sprawling mansion atop the knoll in front of Johns Hopkins' campus? And have you ever wondered what lies behind those intricate wrought-iron gates on North Charles Street, marked only by a simple sign: "Evergreen House"?
Dr. Bodil Ottesen, associate educator of public programs at the Baltimore Museum of Art, devised a way for the public to become more involved with the idiosyncrasies that Baltimore has to offer: a lecture series offered earlier this fall on "Baltimore Mansions," through a collaboration with the BMA and Johns Hopkins University's non-credit Odyssey Program. It'll be offered again next fall (call 410-516-4842 for more information), but in the meantime, here's a glimpse of some of the fascinations found at two Baltimore mansions owned by Johns Hopkins - as well as other mansions open to the public around the area:
The 48-room Evergreen House, tucked behind an intricately detailed wrought-iron gate designed by Tiffany Studios in New York City in 1895 - is considered one of the grandest in Maryland. It was built in the 1850s as a 12-room abode, but John Work Garrett, president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, bought it in 1878 for his son, T. Harrison Garrett, who eventually joined the Garrett and Sons financial firm.
T. Harrison and his wife, Alice Whitridge, began adding on immediately. They installed four libraries - holding 8,000 books - then added a two-story wing to provide a gymnasium, billiard room, two-lane bowling alley and school rooms for the Garretts' three sons.
The oldest son - John Work Garrett, a diplomat under five presidents - inherited the house. He and his wife, Alice Warder, turned the gymnasium and bowling alleys into a private theater and a showroom for their collection of Oriental art.
Alice enlisted Leon Bakst, set and costume designer for the Ballets Russes, the leading dance company of Paris, to design what was the only such private theater in America. Today, the theater remains the world's only extant example of a Bakst-decorated playhouse.
That's impressive, but then there is the Gold Bathroom. "We don't know how it got to be so ornate," says Cindy Kelly, curator.
The window frame, water tank, toilet frame and seat are all in 23-carat gold. "It's absolutely breathtaking," Kelly says.
The facts: Evergreen House is at 4545 N. Charles St. Tours at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Monday-Friday and at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $6; $5 for seniors. Call 410-516-0341.
* Museum Shop-Around, 6 p.m.-9 p.m. Dec. 4; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Dec. 5; 11 a.m to 4 p.m. Dec. 6. For a $5 admission fee, visitors can enjoy a weekend shopping extravaganza that brings together the wares of 14 local museum shops in Evergreen's Carriage House.
* Holiday concert, Dec. 11, 8 p.m. at Evergreen's Carriage House, featuring the Center City Brass Quintet. Reception afterward included in $10 admission. Call for reservations.
In 1800, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, promised to build a country house for his only son, Charles Carroll Jr., as a wedding present. One year and $40,000 (an enormous sum, even for a man whom George Washington called the "most monied man" in America) later, Homewood was produced, then located an hour away from Baltimore by carriage.
The entire house is done in Federal Style, also known as early-neoclassical. "It's the idea that as America was becoming a new nation, the founding fathers searched for a style that would reflect their new government, and so they looked to classical antiquity for inspiration," says Catherine Rogers Arthur, curator. Federal style emphasizes symmetry and proportion and incorporates such features as tall, slender columns, fan-shaped windows and an extreme attention to detail.
Indeed, some of the smallest details are the most spellbinding. For instance, in the Green Chamber is a rare "chocolate pot." As hot chocolate was a popular breakfast beverage in the early 19th century, the Carrolls owned what at first glance appears to be nothing more than an ornate coffee pot. "But the way we know it's a chocolate pot," Arthur explains, "is that the finial is still intact." The finial is a small opening at the top of the pot that allows a stirring rod to be inserted to keep the chocolate from sinking to the bottom. "It is really rare to find a chocolate pot in such good condition, because as soon as coffee became fashionable, many families had their chocolate pots soldered."
Another interesting facet of Homewood House is the decorations that were intended to trick the eye. Impostor decorations were fashionable, such as faux marble baseboards and pine doors grained to resemble mahogany.
The facts: Homewood House is located at Johns Hopkins University, 3400 N. Charles St. Open for tours 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $6; $5 for seniors. Call 410-516-5589.