Small-Town Feel, Big-City Flair

Frederick's Historic Charms Are Complemented By A Thriving Arts Scene And Eclectic Dining.


November 30, 2003|By Jerry V. Haines | Jerry V. Haines,Special to the Sun

As I walked through downtown Frederick recently, strolling along its irregular brick sidewalks from gallery to gallery, it occurred to me that the city doesn't just have galleries -- it is turning into a gallery.

At the corner of Second and North Market streets, I saw on the outside of a building a knee-level brass plaque bearing the title Egress, like the nameplate under a painting in a salon.

To see the painting, I had to cross the street and look back at the wall, where a large painted mallard was escaping through a trompe l'oeil window. The shadows in the mural are so realistic that it took me a moment to realize that the sun wasn't even shining that day.

Years ago, I would not have characterized Frederick as a gallery. I would have said that it was a museum -- an eclectic one. But lately the city has added an element of sophistication to its historic charm.

Frederick's history dates to Colonial days -- founded in 1745, it is only 16 years younger than Baltimore. With varying degrees of pleasure, the city was home to historic luminaries, Hessian mercenaries, railroad men and Civil War soldiers -- some blue-clad, some in gray. Federal, Italian renaissance and Greek revival architectural styles all can be seen among the downtown buildings, many of which were built before 1850.

Unlike other towns, which have paved over their heritage, in downtown Frederick you have no trouble believing, for example, that Francis Scott Key worked here (as a lawyer, not national anthem composer) or that Patrick Street once was a section of the old National Pike.

You can even believe that here Barbara Fritchie once rebuffed Stonewall Jackson with her "Shoot if you must, this old gray head" speech -- although city elders have doubts that the incident ever happened.

And you can quickly forget that I-70 and I-270 are just over the rise, out by the fast-food places and lookalike motels.

It's not that the old is no longer being venerated in Frederick, it's just that it's being supplemented by appreciation for the new.

The antiques emporiums are still there, but the shop next door now might be offering scrap-metal sculpture or painted animation cels from SpongeBob SquarePants. And while there remain many restaurants delighted to dish up meat and potatoes, they compete with new hostelries serving tapas or fruit-infused vodkas.

Kara Norman, executive director of the Downtown Frederick Partnership, emphasizes that the arrival of the "new" is not accidental. "We're reaping the benefit of seeds planted years ago," she says. It's ironic that this planting was prompted by a disaster.

Carroll Creek, which flows through downtown, used to flood, devastating city buildings. There was a particularly bad flood in 1976, when water poured into shops and showrooms on Market Street.

The community chose to view the situation as an opportunity. Leaders did not confine their thinking merely to keeping the river away from their doors: utilities were buried, giving the downtown area an uncluttered feel; historic preservation was emphasized, so that the town's identity remained distinct.

But Frederick also benefited from its proximity to Baltimore and Washington. As those city's work forces spread to Frederick County, new residents brought with them disposable income and certain tastes and expectations.

The unhurried, small-town community demeanor was appreciated, but there was nothing wrong with modern attractions as well -- a dash of pizazz in dining options, a spot of hipness in the arts scene.

Symbolizing this new spirit is the downtown Community Bridge, which spans Carroll Creek. The flood control project, completed in the late 1980s, consists largely of a sterile stretch of uninspiring concrete, but in the middle of it is a stone bridge crested with ivy. Its occasional sculpted blocks display various symbols: a spider web, the big dipper, a violin, children's hands.

But there really are no stones, and the ivy, too, is phony. Like that escaping duck on Market Street, every piece in the bridge is a trompe l'oeil creation coordinated by artist William Cochran. The bridge actually is just plain concrete, but Cochran invited people from the community to contribute ideas for its decoration; about a thousand did, and about a hundred of their contributed ideas were chosen and realized in silicate paint. The walls nearby also have been graced by fake gates and simulated statuary.

If plans work out, the bridge will be just the beginning -- after years of debate, development along the creek finally has been approved. Community leaders envision the area lined with shops, condos and restaurants.

Gallery walks

On the first Saturday night of each month, art becomes an event when the downtown galleries and related shops unite in a gallery walk. Some shops may have live entertainment; at others you might find artists at work. Several establishments offer snacks and libation, even caviar and champagne.

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