Mount Vernon Place is much more than you might have seen at the Flower Mart yesterday.
That annual celebration of spring, usually held every May around the base of Baltimore's Washington Monument, gives visitors a chance to take in the sights and sounds of the historic square.
For those who want to learn more about the area, which has been called one of the finest urban spaces in America, the non-profit Mount Vernon Cultural District offers guided walking tours every Saturday starting at 10 a.m.
"Money will buy an Inner Harbor. Nothing will buy a place like this," said Tom Spence, a Mount Vernon area resident and guide for a recent tour. "There's nothing else like it."
Straddling the 600 and 700 blocks of North Charles Street, Mount Vernon Place was the neighborhood of choice for Baltimore's wealthiest residents in the 19th century and is still considered by many to be the cultural heart of the city. Its centerpiece is architect Robert Mills' 178-foot-tall memorial to George Washington, dedicated in 1829 as the first public monument to the nation's first president.
The term Mount Vernon Place generally refers to the four public squares that provide a setting for the Washington Monument, the monument itself, and the buildings that frame these parklike squares.
Officially, only the east and west squares are Mount Vernon Place, after Washington's Virginia home. The north and south squares are Washington Place, but Mount Vernon Place has stuck as the name for the entire area.
The structures that line the four squares are a mixture of residential, commercial and institutional buildings, including homes for the Peabody Institute, Walters Art Museum, Engineering Society of Baltimore and Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church.
The 90-minute walking tours give visitors an overview of the area, from its inception to latter-day efforts to preserve it. Along the way, they'll explore its architecture and learn about some of the Baltimoreans who made it their home.
The tours leave from the lobby of the Peabody Court Hotel, at 612 Cathedral St. On the day of our tour, the group of 12 was just about evenly split between out-of-state visitors and people who live in the metro area and came to learn more about this part of town.
Spence, the tour guide, walks the group over to the base of the Washington Monument, to show what an engineering feat it was for its time.
The monument consists of a Doric column set on a rectangular base, with a statue of Washington on top. The equivalent of a 17-story building, it was supposed to be built closer to the harbor, where the Battle Monument is now. But when residents of the surrounding area learned how tall it would be, they fought the proposed site.
"Somebody raised the possibility that this big, tall monument might fall over and destroy a building," Spence said. "So Howard offered his land instead."
Howard is Col. John Eager Howard, Revolutionary War hero and owner of a huge estate known as Belvedere. Happy to honor Washington, Howard donated part of his land, an area called Howard's Woods, to be the setting for the monument. Since it was a wooded hillside on the edge of a plantation, he reasoned, no one would be harmed if the monument fell over.
But it didn't stay a lonely hillside for long. After Howard's death in 1827 and the monument's dedication two years later, the land around the monument was divided into building lots, arranged around the four parks. As Baltimore's population grew, Mount Vernon Place attracted families that had become wealthy through shipping, banking or new forms of industry, such as railroading. Institutions followed.
From the Monument, Spence led the tour group from one square to another, pointing out highlights such as the Graham-Hughes House and Washington Apartments on the north square, and the Mount Vernon Club and Hackerman House on the west square. We went inside the restored Peabody Library, with its cast iron columns, and the Engineering Society, the largest townhouse in the city.
The tour ends back at the base of the Washington Monument. Spence encourages people to linger if they want - grab coffee nearby or visit one of the area's museums.
It's clear that even after 90 minutes, an overview such as this can only scratch the surface of Mount Vernon Place. Still, there's plenty to be said about getting out of the car for a bit and exploring a neighborhood on foot, with a group. Seeing an area through other people's eyes can be a good way to see it better for yourself.
The Guided Architectural Walking Tours of Mount Vernon Place begin at 10 a.m. every Saturday through Oct. 29. Tours leave from the lobby of the Peabody Court Hotel, 612 Cathedral St. The price is $10 per person. Reservations are required and may be made by calling 410-889-0894.
Other walking tours
Fell's Point GhostWalk: Reputedly haunted pubs, shops and residences, Saturdays through June. One-hour tours depart at 7 p.m. from Max's Sidebar, 731 S. Broadway. $12. Call 877-225-8466.