Mount Vernon Is Still Its Old, Lovable Self

May 05, 2007|By JACQUES KELLY

I've seen it all before, and yet I return for another helping of Flower Mart. I got pushed to my first in a baby carriage, as did other Mart first-timers I observed yesterday.

On a fine day, a crowd-filled Mount Vernon Place is a Joe Sheppard or Aaron Sopher painting come to life.

There can be good Flower Marts and weak ones, but that's not the point. Like Artscape and other events, it draws people into the city and presents the neighborhood in a good light.

The greater Mount Vernon neighborhood, where the squares and monuments are the chief ornaments, is working its way through a slow and deliberate overhaul. This very urban spot has not received the same injection of residential investment that many parts of the Inner Harbor and Federal Hill did. Maybe that's why I like it so much. It retains character -- and its characters.

It is also short on glitz. The cracked sidewalks along Charles Street are just as bad as the miserably paved street, where the old streetcar rails re-emerge with frequency through the patchy asphalt.

One of the city's spectator sports involves watching Baltimore change before your eyes. The southeast corner of Charles and Preston streets, several blocks north of the Flower Mart, is filling up with a new apartment building called Twelve09.

My elders told me of attending plays at Albaugh's Lyceum on this site. This northern end of the neighborhood, nearer to Penn Station, slid into a small belt of sleaze in the 1960s. Today, the University of Baltimore imparts respectability.

You walk along Charles Street and see the pluses and minuses. The space in the old Buttery restaurant remains stubbornly vacant. The old Mount Vernon-Gampy's restaurant is seeking a tenant after a major face-lift.

The houses here make your jaw drop. A few have historical plaques, but most do not, prompting speculation about the Robber Baron era. Which wealthy commission merchant who also owned the Columbian dry docks lived where? The Duchess of Windsor lived all over the place here and certainly walked these streets. You can be sure the houses have front and back stairs and bell pulls for servants.

I've had friends who lived here, and I've also been on tours. But I've also been to physicians who had offices in Mount Vernon's old houses. When I attended an opening of a condo building now called "The Revels" on West Madison, all I could think of were the eyedrops an ophthalmologist administered to me back in 1967 in his office there.

Back to the Flower Mart. Baltimoreans love to complain about how difficult it is to park at these events. The spring publication of the Baltimore County Historical Society reminded me just how long we've been howling about the parking issue.

"Going to Baltimore to see a show is not so bad, but it has its drawbacks," the society's publication quoted from a Towson Times article. "In the first place the problem of parking near the place of amusement is an annoying one, and driving through city traffic is anything but pleasant."

The year was 1928.

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