Hoping to breathe new life in the old Mencken House

Museum: Friends of the Mencken House are hoping to make the Baltimore writer's home a tourist attraction.

November 07, 2001|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

"A home is not a mere transient shelter ... It is at once a refuge from the world, a treasure-house, a castle, and a shrine of a whole hierarchy of peculiarly private and potent gods."

When H.L. Mencken wrote that paean to home in the Evening Sun on Feb. 16, 1925, he had lived in the same house at 1524 Hollins St. for about 42 years.

Mencken, who many consider the finest American prose stylist of modern times, died in that house almost 31 years later. He was 75, and except for not quite five years when he was married to Sara Haardt, he had lived in the house on the north side of Union Square from when he was about 3 years old.

The house is empty now and worn and neglected. And his peculiarly private and potent gods seem curiously quiet when the Friends of the Mencken House inspect the fine old building on a recent morning.

The house has been closed since the City Life Museums concept collapsed like a punctured balloon in 1997. The Maryland Historical Society carried out the furniture, the Smithsonian Institution took back some artifacts, and the Enoch Pratt Library removed the books. And maybe no one has been inside since then.

The Friends are the latest group to come up with a plan to reopen the house. They want to create a "house museum" that would be another stop on the Baltimore tourist map.

They've actually filed the only current "expression of interest" with the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, which has inherited the house since City Life Museums folded. For HCD, the Mencken House is essentially a piece of unused real estate, albeit with a national-landmark status.

So Segun Edidi, a Nigerian-born real estate agent for the city, unlocks the door and leads the way in. He's followed by Michael Lester, a Friends secretary, and a group that includes renovation experts, a couple of neighbors, the president of the Mencken Society and at least two Mencken impersonators.

The presence of Mencken, that unsanctified "Disturber of the Peace," in William Manchester's phrase, manifests itself in the house mostly in what is not there and by a few things that are.

Mencken molded American literary opinion for a couple of generations. His astringent style influences contemporary writers as diverse as the leftist Christopher Hitchens of The Nation and right-wing R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. of The American Spectator. In times of national controversy, admirers longed for an antiseptic dose of Mencken's caustic wit.

"I always say Mencken and Mark Twain are the most quoted American authors," says Vincent Fitzpatrick, curator of the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Mencken Room and author of one of many books about the writer.

But in the old house on Union Square, yards of bookshelves are empty. Even the bookcase is gone in the sitting room downstairs, where F. Scott Fitzgerald slept off his liquor on an Empire-style sofa.

The books are gone, too, from the third-floor room where Mencken died on Jan. 29, 1956. In the second-floor study where he wrote millions of well-tooled words, the windows that overlook Union Square are covered with funereal black cloth.

"His desk was in front of those three windows," says Harry Powell, 56, who impersonated Mencken in the house during the City Life era.

The white bookshelves against the wall held the Gideon Bibles he liberated from hotel rooms. He would give them to friends, Powell says, autographed: "Compliments of the Author."

The inspection finds some water damage from "condensate" and slight buckling of the front wall not uncommon in the three-story rowhouses around Union Square, but mostly the house needs only "cosmetic" attention.

"Once we get title to the building, we want to reopen the house to the public," says Lester, 32, who lives down the street. "I think it would be to our advantage to show people the building as it is right now as long as it was determined to be safe. It would fire people's imagination and also demonstrate the need for more members."

And funds. The building is probably worth only about $120,000 as a piece of real estate. And the city would consider selling it to a responsible private buyer, someone who would take care of it within the landmark designation guidelines.

In June, another group called The H.L. Mencken House Writers' Center commissioned a detailed study and in a draft proposal suggested $500,000 would be needed for restoration and another $140,000 for program development.

The dozen or so Friends of the Mencken House members have raised $6,000 among themselves. Fund-raising efforts would be strengthened, Lester says, if the Mencken House is dedicated solely to Friends and "no other."

The Mencken House, he says, could attract history-minded bus tourists who look at rowhouses, visit Poe sites and tour the Carroll Mansion in Carroll Park.

"I know people my age who know of Mencken because they've heard him quoted in Sports Illustrated!" Lester says. "There's a following out there. It's been almost 50 years since he died, and we're still reading him."

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