Seeing Baltimore as a 19th-century pearl

Golden Age image should be burnished as a lure for tourists, boosters urge


March 21, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

If Williamsburg, Va. is the place to learn about Colonial America and New Orleans is identified by its French Quarter, how should Baltimore be known?

As the quintessential 19th-century American city, according to a growing contingent of local scholars and cultural leaders.

After all, they argue, Baltimore is a treasure trove of 19th-century art and history. Consider: The city was the birthplace of American railroading. It boasts the first Roman Catholic cathedral in America, the mother church of American Methodism, the first monument to George Washington.

Baltimore's museums house extensive collections of 19th-century fine and decorative arts, from the Maryland Historical Society's holdings of Baltimore furniture and silver to the Lucas Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art, with nearly 20,000 works, mostly by French artists. And the Walters Art Museum has the world's largest collection of works by the French sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye.

Mount Vernon Place, a charming urban spot just north of the city's central business district, has been described by architecture critic Lewis Mumford as "America's finest public space." Created from land donated by Revolutionary War hero John Eager Howard and his heirs, it consists of four squares around the Washington Monument, designed by Robert Mills and constructed between 1815 and 1829.

This cultural bounty will be the focus of a symposium to be held next month at the Garrett Jacobs Mansion, 11 W. Mount Vernon Place. The goal, organizers say, is to identify Baltimore's many riches from the 19th century and demonstrate how they now can be used to promote the city.

"When people all over the country think about Baltimore, what do they think of?" asks John Dorsey, former art critic for The Sun and co-chair of the symposium.

"Baltimore, at least to my way of thinking, has no universal identity, and it needs one. What should that identity be? The 19th century. ... The city as a whole is a veritable museum of the 19th century."

Dorsey, who with James D. Dilts wrote A Guide to Baltimore Architecture, aims to use the conference to showcase the city. "Baltimore is a 19th-century city, and Mount Vernon Place is its heart," he says.

"If you think of the city as a whole, there are many, many distinguished buildings from the 19th century and early 20th century here and important collections of fine arts and decorative arts in museums here. Parks and outdoor sculpture -- it all goes together."

Appreciating this city

Karen Footner, a development consultant and co-chair of the symposium, has been instrumental in lining up sponsors and coordinating the event, entitled "The Golden Age: Garrett Jacobs Mansion, Mount Vernon Place and Baltimore, 1800-1930."

Others on the steering committee include representatives from the Baltimore Museum of Art, the historical society, Midtown Development Corp., Maryland Institute College of Art, Walters Art Museum, Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center, and the Johns Hopkins University.

"We want to get people to come and think about the city in a new way," Footner said. "Baltimore has extraordinary assets that we take for granted if we live here. Sometimes we have to be reintroduced to our own culture, to see how rich it is. We hope this will reintroduce people to what they perhaps already know and don't appreciate the way they should."

The symposium builds on several earlier efforts to promote the Mount Vernon historic district. A nonprofit group called Friends of Mount Vernon Place is raising funds to restore the four squares around the Washington Monument. An alliance of arts institutions and businesses has formed the Mount Vernon Cultural District to plan events and beautify the area.

One alliance member, the Peabody Institute, will mark completion of a three-year, $26-million restoration of its campus with a week of festivities April 17-25. Another member, the historical society, will unveil its new furniture gallery in June.

"Baltimore was big enough to do a good example of everything that America did and small enough that most of these things are close together and you can walk to them in less than an hour," said Charles Duff, executive director of the Midtown Development Corp.

"New York has it all, too, but it's spread over five miles or more."

Two famous architects

The Garrett Jacobs Mansion, purchased in 1872 by B&O Railroad president Robert Work Garrett as a wedding gift for his son, and now the home of the Engineering Society of Baltimore, provides an ideal setting for the symposium.

Besides its Mount Vernon location, Footner says, "The mansion is rare, and probably unique, for having been worked on by two of the greatest 19th- and early 20th-century American architects, Stanford White and John Russell Pope. ... It's a masterpiece of 19th-century architecture."

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