On cold night, Mount Vernon glows

December 17, 2005|By JACQUES KELLY

My first batch of Christmas sauerkraut smelled absolutely delicious about 5:30 in the morning. But that merry spirit yesterday evaporated fast when I tried to wash out the pot and found there was only a trickle in my pipes. And yet, in an otherwise silent house, I could hear the sound of water running.

The cellar was dry; every faucet was off; then I looked outside. A burst garden hose connection was making my porch, walks and steps into a water carnival.

I blamed Thursday's weather initially, but then my plumber showed me an inside valve I should have turned off for the winter. Well ...

That night's treacherous weather tripled the time it normally takes me to get home, but it also imparted a lesson about the old city. The ice on the old street paving bricks and Belgian blocks around the Washington Monument made the spot so treacherous the police closed off the downward slope of Mount Vernon Place adjacent to the Peabody Conservatory.

All these ancient paving materials are covered by the city's historic preservation ordinances. We don't change this stuff around for good reason; and like the willful plumbing in my antique house, there is always something to give you a fit when nothing is new and standard.

As I made my way cautiously through old Mount Vernon, I thought about this, certainly one of Baltimore's most exquisitely endowed neighborhoods in terms of architecture and preservation, yet one that requires so much additional investment and resolution of objectives.

My friends who live here are in the midst of a spirited and heartfelt debate over whether tall new apartment and condominium buildings should be allowed to fill up the dispiriting gaps and holes that appeared when glorious 19th-century homes were razed. (No preservation laws then.) In the meantime, the barons of Baltimore's parking lots have been cleaning up on hourly revenues.

I can see why people are wary of development; I say enforce the preservation laws strictly and put something else on the vacant lots.

As I wrote my Christmas mail this year, I was struck by the number of pieces I addressed to people who live in Mount Vernon's Calvert and St. Paul Street high-rises constructed in the 1960s. These buildings are bland, not architectural gems; but they do house plenty of people efficiently - and that's not a bad thing.

In many ways, Mount Vernon is in a most enviable situation. After years of just sitting there, the place's attractive features are luring the builders. I think of the young and visionary developers who are now trying to secure permission for a new house on a narrow Preston Street lot. I'd like to see every lot filled with homes for people to really enjoy the kind of downtown living Mount Vernon offers. But there's a lot of work to do yet.

As I carefully stepped along old and slippery Charles Street, I took a little winter walk that led me out of my way but gave me time to admire the bejeweled stained-glass windows. I then looked at the weird ice formations on iron turnings atop the old slate roofs. I glanced at the chandeliers inside the the Belvedere's Charles Room; admired the wreaths and portraits visible at the Maryland Club. And, traveling a few blocks north, I thought that the huddled commuters outside Pennsylvania Station, though cold and annoyed at the lack of buses, still resembled a holiday card.

This is one exceptional neighborhood. It just needs more people. I'd like to see every lot occupied with homes for people to savor downtown, but not harborside, city living.


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