St. Petersburg's charms

February 13, 2003

IT'S EASY TO FALL in love with St. Petersburg.

The baroque palaces alone are breathtaking, glistening along the Neva River and its innumerable canals. Then there is the spirit of Peter the Great's creation - bold, enterprising, rebellious. With such inspiration, it's no wonder St. Petersburg ranks among the world's top cultural capitals.

Starting today, Baltimoreans will have an extraordinary chance to sample those riches.

With events that will continue through March 2, more than 60 area arts organizations are joining to celebrate St. Petersburg's 300th birthday.

The cavalcade of concerts, plays and exhibits would make even the Winans brothers envious. And that's saying something, because those two Baltimoreans actually danced and partied through the czarist capital's 150th anniversary, back in 1853.

The brothers were spearheading the construction of a railroad between St. Petersburg and Moscow, a 420-mile feat. They were responsible for other engineering marvels as well - a railroad to the czar's summer palace and an unprecedented cast-iron bridge spanning the Neva.

Despite the glitzy anniversary galas of their era, the Winans brothers were unlucky. They were in St. Petersburg too late for Pushkin and Gogol, too early for Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky - and also missed out on the legions of modernists ranging from Stravinsky to Malevich.

Contemporary Baltimore revelers have a chance to see a better show. And with several local restaurants featuring Russian dishes, they don't even have to cross borders. Vivat!

Be forewarned, though, that exposure to things St. Petersburgian may lead people to go a bit overboard.

When the Winans brothers returned to Baltimore fabulously rich (having completed the railroad a year early), one of them, Thomas, built a fabulous estate for his Russian bride. He named it Alexandroffsky - after a foundry he operated near St. Petersburg - and spared no expense.

Sadly, the marbled Alexandroffsky, along with its conservatory, gardens, gazebos and fountains, was demolished in 1926. All that is left is a memorial tablet at the southwestern corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Baltimore Street.

But Crimea, Thomas Winans' summer home, remains in Leakin Park - a monument both to a man and to his love affair with St. Petersburg.

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