Truth, myth about art-collecting Walters clan

Legend: The lamp ostensibly kept lighted as a father waited for his daughter's return proves to have more practical roots, as a new book reveals.

October 09, 1999|By Jacques Kelly

ALL MY LIFE I've heard stories and tales about William and Henry Walters, Baltimore's father and son art collectors who gave the city its appropriately legendary gallery and collection.

As a child, I listened to one of the great Baltimore stories, the lamp that remained perpetually lighted on West Mount Vernon Place. This is the tale of Jennie Walters, the daughter of William Walters, who broke her father's heart. The father kept the light visible in hopes his daughter would return to his side.

Like many a good story, it has its deliciously true and outright false components.

William R. Johnston, who for the past 33 years has been associated with the Walters as its associate director and Walters family historian, tells this story -- and many others -- in his new book, "William and Henry Walters, the Reticent Collectors," a must-buy for readers interested in this topic. William Walters has long been one of the least understood of Baltimoreans. In the past, the more I read about him, the less I understood of this 19th-century capitalist, who was born on the shores of the mighty Susquehanna in Pennsylvania and made successive fortunes in rye whiskey, railroads and banking.

Walters sailed out of Baltimore temporarily during the Civil War -- he had sympathies for states' rights and the South, where he sold much of his rye -- and decided to tour Europe, where he enriched his art-buying tastes.

Johnston reveals that the Walterses often traveled in second-class railway carriages, a bit of personal economy that seems at odds with their grand home on Mount Vernon Place and their ownership of railroads here.

While traveling abroad, William and his wife, Ellen, visited London's fabled Crystal Palace, a great iron and glass pavilion. The palace was dank and drafty. Ellen Walters took a chill, developed pneumonia and died Nov. 13, 1862, at age 40. Her grave monument, a statue of a woman called "Love Reconciled with Death," is one of the most celebrated at Green Mount Cemetery. Nearly 140 years later, it still imparts a sense of the grief at the loss of a loved one.

Walters, who never remarried, sought solace in his children. His son Henry (also called Harry) was much the model son. He was a good student at Georgetown University and successfully managed his father's railroad, the Atlantic Coast Line, a route that to this day carries rail passengers on their way to Florida.

While Henry Walters was a student at Georgetown, his father doubtless heard of the Georgetown Visitation Academy conducted by cloistered Roman Catholic nuns. It was here that his beloved daughter Jennie was educated. The elder Walters gave the nuns a painting of St. John the Baptist. Shortly thereafter, a romance blossomed between Jennie and Warren Delano III, a student from a fine old Hudson River Valley family. The now widowed William Walters disapproved of a union between them. He didn't want to surrender his daughter's loving companionship.

The young couple married anyway (with the approval and connivance of her brother Henry) at the Church of the Redeemer on Charles Street on July 11, 1876. They had no reception or "exchange of civilities." Afterward,they simply left by carriage and moved out of Baltimore. William Walters was not at all pleased, although father and daughter did reconcile a bit before his death. He nevertheless cut her portion of his enormous wealth and gave her none of his art. She received a cash settlement and trust, but this was considerably less than what might have come her way.

As to the burning lamp atop the stone steps of the Walters home at 5 W. Mount Vernon Place, Johnston offers an explanation:

A telegram messenger came to the front door and couldn't find the bell pull. He banged so loudly on the beautiful doors that Walters had a lamp installed to cast a ray on the button.

Those front exterior steps proved a bad omen to the elderly collector. At the end of his life, he suffered from Bright's disease and took a tumble on them as he entered the house one fall day. Injured from the fall, he never left the house again and succumbed to death Nov. 22, 1894.

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