Each spring my enthusiasm for Baltimore neighborhood house and garden tours outpaces my ability to walk them all. I recently visited Reservoir Hill and Charles Village, but missed Dickeyville and Butcher's Hill. Maybe next year.
Tours that emphasize spring gardens invariably involve a turn through a city back alley. I learned to love these much-maligned city thoroughfares as a child, when my mother, never an enthusiastic auto driver, used sturdy steel and wicker baby carriages to navigate behind-the-scenes Baltimore. She taught me to appreciate a good alley, its informality, its surprises, its gardens, its history. As an adult, I learned to judge a neighborhood by the quality of its alleys, often with a strong assist from tours that allow you to get past locked gates, privacy walls and barking dogs.
The term alley covers a spectrum of urban passageways. Some are little more than paved footpaths. I think of these as secret lanes that lead to an unexpected oasis, often meticulously maintained but imaginatively conceived. My weekend travels did not disappoint.
One such passage off Calvert and 32nd led me to the backyard lair of Bruce Paul Reik, who explained the fence he's covered in hubcaps was inspired by the home of Georgia visionary artist Howard Finster. Nestled between streams of rush-hour traffic on St. Paul and Calvert, his home on a little row might not appear to contain a magical garden. But city people crave and create quiet green spaces of their own.
Reik built a 1,000-gallon pond not long after he bought the house in 1991. He told of his experience of digging a cavity and stocking it with local goldfish from the old Waverly Woolworth's on Greenmount Avenue. The fish prospered until the day his house caught fire and a burning mattress got tossed in the pond, killing the fish.
Undaunted, and insured, he rebuilt. His pond and stock of goldfish and Koi are amazing. He grows rhubarb, along with other bamboo and hosta, alongside the pool. This beautiful environment also contained a Baltimore history puzzle, perhaps dating from the era when Reik's home belonged to Lutheran clergyman Paul Gabler of St. Paul's Church and his wife, Mildred.
Set in concrete near his pond is an ancient, carved limestone panel with the words Canby Place. A call to Maryland history expert Jeff Korman at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library found Canby on an old map at Lexington and Calhoun, at Franklin Square. Occasionally you'll see a place name incised in a stone fitted into a Baltimore building's corner. But why the Canby Place stone was moved, carefully, to a 32nd Street backyard many years ago eludes me.
Reservoir Hill is a neighborhood where trick geometry determines lot dimensions and room sizes. On a walk through it on another touring day, I encountered a backyard garden at 2100 Mount Royal Terrace. The yard was one of the smallest I encountered, but the house attached to it was the largest, at 9.5 baths, and what a brochure described as 40-plus rooms and "unusually shaped corners."
The house was once the abode of J. Kemp Bartlett, a wealthy attorney and yachtsman. Just 100 years ago this summer he decamped temporarily with his family to Catonsville and turned his roomy city house over to his brother-in-law, A. Mitchell Palmer, a Pennsylvania-based leader in the 1912 Democratic National Convention (held at the nearby Fifth Regiment Armory), who was a leading Woodrow Wilson backer and later his attorney general after Wilson took the election.
When convention delegates deadlocked, there was a clandestine 3 a.m. meeting to draft Palmer at the Mount Royal Terrace home, The Baltimore Sun reported. Palmer declined and the house, now a bed-and-breakfast, is named for Wilson, who by tradition, was a visitor to it. Could there be more than one Woodrow Wilson-named place in Baltimore? How about the 1913 Woodrow apartments, on 30th Street in Charles Village, a building adjacent to gardens on the recent tour?