The debris and memories of a fine old house

August 14, 1999|By Jacques Kelly

THE SOUND of a helicopter buzzing overhead is not a noise we city dwellers welcome. It's sure sign of trouble -- especially at 5 in the morning. Before long I smelled the smoke of burning aged wood, an unmistakable urban scent that means more grief.

There was a good breeze blowing, and I guessed the fire was a distance away. It wasn't. My father called about 7 and reported that a Guilford Avenue house down the block from his had been burned out.

The damaged place was what we called the Lenhards' home, although that family had not lived there for more than 30 years. It was a house where I'd spent plenty of time in my childhood.

I hoofed it up the hill to see the damage -- I understand that half the neighborhood was out at 6 in the morning -- and found a much-burned-out home with a pile of charred debris on the side street, Ilchester Avenue. The fire department reported no injuries.

The fire came at a time when the old neighborhood was clearly on the upswing. The robust city real estate market has translated into numerous renovations, paint jobs and new roofs -- as well as new faces and new families.

Let a fire sweep through one of these fine old city rowhouses, and your spirits will be punctured.

I say fine old city houses because they are just that -- so well built, with mantels and parquet floors and big, gracious rooms.

The old Lenhard house had them all. It was the end of the row on our little block, with a set of south-facing windows that made the place sunny and welcoming.

It was also the only house on the block at the time I was born where there were other children. The demographics of 1950s Charles Village were heavy on the elderly -- the younger families had long taken off for the suburbs and rejected these old-fashioned 1914 places.

The six Kelly and two Lenhard children became fast friends -- especially after the younger Lenhard daughter, Kathy, appeared at our front door one afternoon, dressed in Bugs Bunny pajamas. She had escaped her otherwise mandatory nap, slipped past her guards and gone visiting in the neighborhood.

The Lenhards' living room was much nicer than ours because it was the end house and had a nicer floor plan. (Ours remains long, and fairly narrow, typical of Baltimore rowhouses.)

The family was also a television pioneer -- the Lenhards bought a color set that was no match for our black-and-white.

But there was a magic in the house that was far better than any electronic device. Jane Lenhard, Kathy's mother, could play the piano -- and play it well.

And in the basement playroom -- another of those sunny chambers that wasn't like a cellar at all -- was an upright piano where the annual Halloween parties were staged. You had to dress -- home-sewn costumes preferred -- and march in while Jane played a rousing version of "Anchors Aweigh."

Unfortunately, it was the basement playroom where most of the fire-damaged debris landed.

These are sturdy old places -- and I'm sure the damage can be corrected. Baltimore neighborhoods are made of pretty tough stuff.

Pub Date: 8/14/99

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