The house the Menckens called home


September 11, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

On a gloomy spring morning more than 20 years ago, I was given a tour of 704 Cathedral St., once the home of H.L. Mencken and his wife, Sara Powell Haardt, who spent their brief married lives there in the early 1930s.

At the time of my tour, the large brownstone townhouse, built in 1850, was owned by Laurence Glass. He later sold it to the city for $400,000; it will become a major component in the expansion and renovation of the Baltimore School for the Arts.

The first-floor entry hall was illuminated by light from an oval-shaped transom. Mencken once said that the stained-glass transom looked as if it had been lifted from the smoking room of a North German Lloyd Line passenger steamer.

I recall a rather grand staircase - with dark stairs and banisters that cork-screwed to the upper floors - as being off to one side.

The tour included Mencken's sprawling seven-room apartment, a duplex on the second and third floors, where the couple had passed their happiest and most tragic days.

The walk-through ended after a visit to a cozy, glass-lined rooftop cupola that gave a rather commanding view of the city in all directions. The Mencken apartment, free of furniture and rugs, revealed beautiful parquet flooring.

The carved fireplace mantel was still there in the high-ceilinged front parlor overlooking Cathedral Street. During the Mencken tenancy, Sara had the walls of this room wallpapered in pale lemon, a perfect backdrop for her gold, rust and green brocade Victorian furniture.

A large dining room, facing west, had windows that brought in afternoon sun and gave a rather lovely view of the city.

It was in this room that Mencken gleefully clipped the Katzenjammer Kids, Happy Hooligan and Krazy Kat comic strips, and then carefully glued and inserted the figures into the swirls of the patterned floral wallpaper.

A door from the dining room led down a few steps to a 48-foot-long hall, which led to a wing added in the early 1900s. The hall was lined with bookshelves added by the Menckens for their substantial library.

The engagement in the spring of 1930 of America's most eligible bachelor to Sara Haardt Powell, a Montgomery, Ala.-born novelist and short story writer, was big news.

The couple soon set about finding a suitable home, as her 16 W. Read St. apartment was too small, and he did not wish to live in the family home at 1524 Hollins St.

They settled on the apartment at 704 Cathedral, nestled between the old Knights of Columbus Alcazar Hotel and the Christian Science temple and moved in after their Aug. 27, 1930, wedding.

"I live in a neighbourhood so holy," Mencken wrote to a friend, "I can look out of my back window any night and see the Holy Ghost skipping across the chimney pots."

Sara brought her collection of Victoriana and assorted bric-a-brac; Mencken's chattels, besides his library, included brewing equipment, crocks, an iron spittoon and an elaborate 19th-century lithograph of the Pabst Brewery.

Mencken dubbed the apartment the "Palazzo Mencken," and wrote to a friend, "We are taking a swell apartment in Baltimore overlooking Mount Vernon place and very close to Schellhase's kaif and several other excellent saloons."

Sara, 37, died of tubercular meningitis on May 31, 1935, and was buried in the Mencken plot at Loudon Park Cemetery.

Mencken stayed on in the apartment where he completed work on the fourth edition of the American Language. But the memory of Sara depressed Mencken who returned to his Union Square home in 1936.

"It was a beautiful adventure while it lasted," Mencken wrote of his marriage. "Now I feel completely dashed and dismayed ... What a cruel and idiotic universe we live in."

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