The whimsical building entered into local legend as the gingerbread home of Hansel and Gretel. The Sheppard Pratt gatehouse is so firmly established as a beloved Baltimore landmark that you almost expect merry gnomes to appear at its slender windows. It's not hard to envision an eccentric witch or two here. There's even a little stream nearby for a troll.
What exactly happened behind the walls of this semi-mysterious abode in the woods alongside a busy Charles Street adjacent to the Woodbrook, Murray Hill and Greater Towson neighborhoods?
For decades, the gatehouse-lodge was whitewashed in a bright-and-clean hospital style. The paint on the stone disappeared a while back. A recent cleaning and repointing again perked up its mellow stone walls and chalet-like slate roofs.
The gatehouse is undergoing a $1.4 million renovation. Even encased in metal scaffolding, the place looks more in harmony with its semi-wooded locale. When completed, it will become a kind of mini-campus guest house, with three suites available for visitors associated with Sheppard Pratt, the mental health system whose main buildings sit on a hill above Charles Street. Should a psychiatrist or lecturer need a place to stay for a night, there will be a room ready here.
"The house is an optical illusion," said Jeff Brown, a manager for Lewis Contractors, the firm handling the gatehouse refurbishment. "It appears bigger on the outside and is far smaller on the inside."
After climbing through the renovation site, I realized how this landmark does trick the eye. Its interior is so confined that Kann Partners, the architects, had to design staircases with handrails that could be detached to create enough room to move furnishings upstairs.
The place has other surprises. Its center is pierced by a large opening that once admitted carriages and automobiles to the hospital grounds. It was indeed a gatekeeper; and in later years, landscapers and security staff lived here.
The rooms above the carriage-entry passage tend to get cold because of the wind tunnel created by this breezy cut-through. The original builders supplied their own form of insulation: "loose-laid" horsehair that is still in place.
There is another visual trick. The gatehouse appears to be symmetrical, but it is not. The south-facing side is smaller. It seems that when the foundation was being dug, the builders encountered an immovable rock, the same variety of gneiss stone found elsewhere on the property that is used in other Sheppard Pratt buildings.
I learned that for decades, the iron gates on the house were closed and locked every night. Baltimore's G. Krug and Son will refurbish the old iron gates. Also look for some amazing six-foot wood finials to return at the gable end peaks. Also due for a return is the lantern that once illuminated callers.
"This is a very special project, a fantastic little structure," said Katherine Good, a Kann Partners historic preservation specialist.
Its history is rather remarkable. It was built as a gatekeeper's lodge. For nearly three decades it stood as the principal structure on the sprawling property, a Baltimore County farm that stretched from Charles Street to York Road. Philanthropist Moses Sheppard had stipulated that only the income, not the principal, of his gift be used to build the hospital, so the gatehouse was the only building put up for 30 years. The gatehouse went up in the spring of 1860. The first patient, a woman diagnosed with dementia, was admitted in late 1891.
News accounts in The Sun said that workers on the property (there was a large orchard and farm) lived in the gatehouse rooms.
The gatehouse and the 1890s hospital buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Four gifts, totaling $227,000, assisted the gatehouse renovation. The France-Merrick Foundation was the lead donor, with additional help from the Charitable Marine Society, the Middendorf Foundation and the Wilbur family. The gatehouse also qualified for Maryland Rehabilitation Tax Credits.
"It's a part of our legacy," said Thomas D. Hess, special assistant to the health system's president. "It's an iconic building on Charles Street. Thousands of people see it every day, and when they do, they see Sheppard Pratt."