Architectural Partnership Helped Define Baltimore

August 26, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

One of my favorite vistas on a morning walk provides a view of the dark spire in Green Mount Cemetery. Coming down Guilford Avenue, I spot the Green Mount Chapel just as I reach a little rise at 20th Street. It's a magnificent piece of Gothic Revival architecture, often overlooked and ideally sited within the aged stone walls of this landmark burying ground.

A new book about the architectural partnership of John Rudolph Niernsee and James Crawford Neilson, published by the Baltimore Architectural Foundation, details just how prolific and influential these Baltimore designers were in the mid-19th century.

The partners who showered Baltimore with their talents met as young civil engineers working for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in the 1830s.

The book told me that Niernsee was born in Vienna in 1814, was educated at the Polytechnic in Prague and served as an apprentice to a stonemason. He knew how to build something to last for the ages.

He came to the U.S. in 1836 and soon met native Marylander James Crawford Neilson as both worked for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. By the 1840s, they had struck out on their own as architects and were coming up with mansions in the Mount Vernon neighborhood and, in the process, more or less invented the architectural profession in Baltimore. They and the designers they hired and trained gave the city much of its look.

The book -- Niernsee and Neilson, Architects of Baltimore: Two Careers on the Edge of the Future -- was written by Randolph W. Chalfant, with whom I had many long conversations over the years. I spent an afternoon at his Cloverhill Road home discussing the project, which must have consumed the last 25 years of his life. Randy died in 2004, before the book was just the way he wanted it -- and it has been completed by the able Charles Belfoure.

Devotees of old Baltimore will have a field day reading the chapter on the old Calvert Station, a railway terminal that sat for a century on the site of what is now The Sun's main building at 501 N. Calvert St.

Built by the old Baltimore & Susquehanna Railroad, and later operated by the Pennsylvania Railroad, this station made national news when it was opened. It was the largest railroad terminal building in the country at its June 3, 1850, debut. The Prince of Wales visited the station in 1860, and Abraham Lincoln's funeral train left Baltimore from it in 1865.

These architects had a way with towers -- my favorite is the one at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland -- but the squarish topper at the Clifton Mansion in Northeast Baltimore is not bad. I wish someone would take better care of one of their forgotten jewels, the now-closed St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church (Valley and Eager streets), which looks like an ecclesiastical cousin of the Calvert Station.

This book is an excellent follow-up to a similar work on city architects Baldwin and Pennington, which the Baltimore Architectural Foundation published three years ago. The research is impeccable and the photos complement the text. The authors and editors also tell the reader where a certain building is, or was, and whether it is standing, demolished or incinerated by the Baltimore Fire of 1904.

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