Cookies crumble, but not tour

Union Square homes open for 22nd year

December 10, 2007|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN REPORTER

Were it not for the Christmas Cookie Tour, Phyllis McKeen said she might never have moved to Union Square in 1985.

She was relocating from New York City and fell in love with a park-front rowhouse on South Stricker Street. And she adored her would-be neighbors, including the Rahl family just a few doors down.

Yesterday, 22 years after the first tour, more than 200 people stopped by the Rahls' house and about two dozen others to nibble cookies while admiring some of the city's most ornate homes.

Just as when McKeen made the rounds years ago, this year's tour also served as an introduction to visitors who might never before have passed through Union Square - the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood where famed newspaperman H.L. Mencken grew up.

Union Square's Cookie Tour began the year Mount Vernon's Holly Tour went on hiatus, said Francis Rahl, a longtime resident of South Stricker Street and de facto Union Square historian. The Holly Tour returned in 2002, and also was held yesterday.

This was Sylva Lin's first time taking part in the Cookie Tour. The Washington transplant moved to Union Square in January, charmed by a Hollins Street rowhouse with a skylight-lit spiral staircase. Lin shared walnut log cookies and renovation tales with guests.

"The whole place used to be covered in shag carpeting," she said to disbelieving tourgoers.

At the other corner of Union Square, neighborhood association president Christopher Taylor showed off the green renovations of his corner home on Lombard Street.

He said he wants to move "as many good people as we can" into the neighborhood and said the association had grown from just 23 people to more than 100 in the past three years.

For many, the last stop on the Cookie Tour was the Rahls' house, where the main attraction wasn't so much the ginger cookies as Francis Rahl himself.

A resident for 28 years, he and his wife, Debra, have participated in all 22 cookie tours.

He told stories about the neighborhood's many ups and downs, describing South Stricker Street as filled with scaffolding and promise when he moved there in the 1970s. But by the mid-1980s, he said, he was sitting on his front stoop, drinking a beer and feeling blue about the downturn in activity.

The past few years, with people such as Taylor and Lin moving in and becoming involved, have renewed the neighborhood's sense of potential. But Rahl said he thinks the slow real estate market might hamper the growth.

"It has never really been a bad neighborhood," he said, as tourgoers admired his three-story rowhouse. "But it's never really realized its full potential, either."

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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