Historians to savor city's historic charms

April 19, 2006|By ARTHUR HIRSCH | ARTHUR HIRSCH,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore lawyer and former Maryland legislator Julian L. Lapides tells a story about how he got hooked up with the American Antiquarian Society, a story involving decades-long pursuits, fascinating characters, tangents, chance meetings and, well, it's a Lapides story.

The point is that the famously chatty Lapides is chairman of the board of the American history archive and research organization based in Worcester, Mass. That means he helps run AAS business and acts as host for the semiannual meeting this week, which is being held in Baltimore for the first time in the society's almost two-century history, near as anyone can tell.

This evening, Lapides and his wife, Linda, are scheduled to welcome about 80 of the society's 821 members from around the country -- historians, publishers, book dealers, collectors -- to the Marburg House on West Mount Vernon Place, an elegant 19th- century showpiece with high ceilings, wood-paneled walls and crystal chandeliers.

"We're going to show a number of distinguished Americans that Baltimore is a treasure," says Lapides, sitting in the library on the second floor of Marburg House, now the headquarters of a publishing company. "Baltimore gets a bad rap as being the city of crime and grime."

True, places like the Marburg House don't get much exposure on The Wire. Above Lapides' head hangs a chandelier with gold branches and crystal pendants the size of Bartlett pears. To his right, bookcases of dark wood and beveled glass stand against walls cloaked in textured, forest-green paper.

"This isn't a bad library," says Lapides.

The evening reception kicks off three days of members-only tours and lectures, including talks on Edgar Allan Poe collections and on Maryland's Carroll family, which included the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.

"It's not so much a scholarly meeting, more cultural tourism," says Ellen S. Dunlap, president of the AAS, which maintains what is considered the nation's most abundant storehouse of printed materials from American Colonial times through 1876.

The organization has chosen for this event several venerable spots around town. Members will visit the Baltimore Museum of Art, Homewood House at the Johns Hopkins University, the Walters Art Museum, the Maryland Historical Society, the Peabody Library, the American Visionary Art Museum, the Washington Monument Museum and, of course, Fort McHenry.

The society meeting would hardly be complete without homage to Fort McHenry and its associations with Francis Scott Key and the War of 1812, seeing as how AAS roots can apparently be traced to that conflict.

It seems that American patriot, printer and publisher Isaiah Thomas was not confident his new nation would prevail against the British. To preserve what he feared might soon be a vanquished American culture, he gathered pamphlets, newspapers and books in New England. His effort launched the American Antiquarian Society.

The archives in Worcester have swelled to more than 3 million printed items, including 2 million newspapers and 680,000 books, as well as political cartoons, pamphlets, maps, portraits, photographs, lithographs and paintings.

The collection includes one of 11 surviving copies of The Bay Psalm Book of 1640, believed to be the first book printed in the American Colonies.

Recently, the AAS acquired a collection of four volumes of manuscript compiled by the Rev. Greensbury Washington Offley, an African-American man born in Maryland in 1808 to a woman who had been freed from slavery in her master's will.

Offley moved to Hartford, Conn., to study for the ministry in the 1830s, then worked with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Worcester. After the Civil War, he traveled the South fundraising among the freedmen.

AAS membership is by election only and the annual and semiannual meeting events are not open to the public, but the society offers public lectures and other presentations and a research fellowship program in Worcester.

So what is Lapides, 74, a schmoozer of historic reputation who spent 32 years in the Maryland General Assembly, doing mixed up with the likes of historian David McCullough and documentarian Ken Burns, to name only two household names among AAS membership?

It's a long story, having mostly to do with his wife's lifelong pursuit of children's book collecting and their acquaintance with the owner of a certain highly desirable collection in which the AAS had interest.

Lapides himself wrote a paper on the McLoughlin Brothers children's book publishers in completing his master of liberal arts degree from Hopkins, but he says his wife holds the real credentials in this field. Linda Lapides once headed the young adult books division at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

"She does the research and the writing," says Lapides, who was elected to AAS membership in 1981, two years before his wife. "I like the people aspect of it."

Indeed, if Linda Lapides collects books, it might be said that Lapides has over the years amassed a breathtaking collection of friends, associates, clients and waving acquaintances.

"I'm just amazed at the number of people who know him," says AAS President Dunlap. "He's just one of those Pied Piper people."

Lapides has also done his share for historic preservation, serving now as president of Baltimore Heritage Inc. and having served as president of the Preservation Society of Baltimore.

"I think the future of our nation and our own futures are really dependent on the past," says Lapides. "We will not continue to be a great nation if we do not pay attention to our own past."

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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