The park, an oasis, sustains old-timers, attracts newcomers

Neighborhood profile: Union Square

Union Square replete with village spirit

June 20, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

On a bright, sunny, June morning, the view of Union Square Park from the front parlor of Fran and Debra Rahl's Stricker Street rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore resembles a vintage postcard right out of 1885.

Located in the 1500 blocks of Hollins and Lombard streets, the park is bounded on the east and west by Stricker and Gilmor streets. Surrounding streets are illuminated with electric lights that reproduce the antique gas lamps that once illuminated the area.

With its Greek pavilion and fountain, the park, with its walks that radiate from the H. L. Mencken Memorial Fountain, is shadowed by ancient oaks, lindens and pines.

They make this a perfect oasis for residents and visitors from the noisy and bustling city that surrounds this neighborhood of Early Victorian Greek Revival, Late Romanesque Revival and Italianate style brick homes.

Perhaps its best-known resident was the Sage of Baltimore, Mencken, the Baltimore journalist, who lived in a three-story rowhouse at 1524 Hollins St. Mencken resided there from 1885, excluding a five-year absence in the 1930s when he lived in Mount Vernon Place, until his death in 1956.

The Mencken House, which closed last summer because of funding problems with the old City Life Museums, remains shuttered, its future uncertain.

In the late 1970s, the Rahls were looking to buy a house in an older inner-city neighborhood and happened to discover Union Square quite by accident. "We had been looking in Federal Hill, which even then was getting rather pricey," said Debra Rahl, while sitting on a Victorian horsehair stuffed sofa in her parlor the other day.

"We happened to be driving down Lombard Street one night and saw Union Square. The next day we asked our agent about it, and he showed us this house. We fell in love with it immediately and bought it right away for $63,000."

What the Rahls got was a house that had been built in 1857. It was later converted to six apartments and housed war workers during World War II and had been partially rehabbed at the time of their purchase. The Rahls have spent the past two decades painstakingly restoring to their former glory the house, which has five levels and an upstairs deck, and its gardens.

There have been surprises along the way.

"We were taking down a wall and found a bar glass that had been left there by a worker and a copy of Mark Twain's obituary stuffed in another wall. In what had been the cistern, I found bits of old pottery and in the back yard I've picked up old-fashioned marbles," said Debra Rahl.

Francis Rahl, an auditor with Northrop-Grumman, and Debra Rahl, a custom drapery maker, also created a magnificent garden, a blend of perennials and flowering annuals, that will be open next Sunday as part of "the Secret Gardens of Union Square" annual garden tour.

Other longtime residents include Melvin and Ardebella Fox, who have restored and sold houses in the community for well over 30 years.

"I bought my first house here two weeks after my 21st birthday and I've never stopped," Ardebella Fox said with a laugh.

"I love the area and the houses and the feeling that is here. It's an integrated neighborhood and that's extremely important," she said. Fox, who likes being near the historic Hollins Market and the shops and stores at Mount Clare Junction, on the grounds of the former B & O railroad shops, added that the community spirit is much like that found in "a little village."

It's not a neighborhood without difficulties, however.

"It has the typical city problems, such as trash and getting the attention of City Hall," Debra Rahl said. "We have very little crime here because we won't tolerate it."

Since the city withdrew its full-time park caretaker, neighborhood residents handle trash removal and other chores related to the park, she said.

However, there has never been a shortage of high-spirited community activism in the community.

In the early 1960s, Robert E. and Joanne Whitely, who settled in the neighborhood, had much to do with its eventual resurrection from urban decay and blight.

In addition to founding the Union Square Association in 1967, Joanne Whitely became a colorful and outspoken advocate for the community at City Hall.

It was Whitely who insisted in 1976 that then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer replace the sidewalks in Union Square Park with historically accurate, pink-tinted sidewalks.

"She really has been the heart and soul of Union Square for years," said Fox.

In 1970, Union Square was named the fifth Architectural and Historical Preservation District by the city. Today, the neighborhood is part of the Hollins Market/Union Square National Register Historic District.

"It's really quite grand and elegant and speaks for itself," said Walter G. Schamu, a Baltimore architect and architectural historian. "It really is a place that has been overlooked in Baltimore for years."

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