Favored Book Opened Eyes To What Makes Baltimore

November 04, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

Last week's death of historian Richard H. Howland reminded me of Christmas morning 1962, when among my gifts I found a copy of his seminal book, The Architecture of Baltimore, A Pictorial History.

My mother had recently attended a lecture given by Wilbur Hunter, who ran the old Peale Museum on Holliday Street, and bought the volume. It was the book that opened my eyes to Baltimore.

This elegant work of writing and illustration was then 11 years old, having been published in 1953. Yet its message was brilliant, subtle and prophetic: Wake up, Baltimore. Your city, though now smoke-stained and unfashionable, is a truly worthy, remarkable piece of design and construction.

It chanted the praises of Mount Vernon Square at the time the Walters administrators wanted to rip it apart for a new wing. It spoke reverentially of Union and Franklin squares after so many middle-class people had fled them.

Howland, who was 96 when he died of pneumonia Oct. 24, founded the art history department at the Johns Hopkins University, where he taught until the mid-1950s. His co-author was Eleanor Spencer, a medievalist who was on the Goucher College faculty for many years. Both New Englanders, they were fascinated by Baltimore's good-bones architecture and told us so. Over the decades, it has remained my favorite read - and look at old Baltimore.

They got it, as others have not. Howland and Spencer acknowledged that Baltimore is not all fancy parlors and loggias. They championed our industrial base, the old sugar warehouses of the harbor and the railroads. They loved rowhouses. They savored the classic proportions of Greece and Rome, as reflected in renowned landmarks and in a forgotten house on Lee Street. They praised Roland Park at a time when it was looking a little seedy.

It often takes those not born in Baltimore to recognize and celebrate this city. We natives are tough critics and are quick to damn. Howland and Spencer had no such prejudices, and they conducted their own research. The writing is a joy, assisted by the old Peale's Wilbur Hunter, a genius at finding ideal photos and drawings. The layout designers at the Johns Hopkins University Press used the right paper and ran generous illustrations.

The 1953 book never preached. It presented the evidence clearly and convincingly about Baltimore. Its tone was what you would expect of the Hopkins Press, but it escaped becoming anesthetic.

Just this week, I was heading home and spotted photographer A. Aubrey Bodine's downtown home. It's his photograph on the 1953 book's dust jacket. The scene is classic Baltimore: a night view of the 800 block of Park Ave., where he resided. We see beloved rowhouses, the First Presbyterian Church spire and the outline of the old Winona apartments, as well as the tracks of the No. 32 streetcar. You can smell the sauerkraut cooking.

Alas, some 44 years later, my copy has become frail, ready to fall apart, with a loose binding, and yet remains well-loved.


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