While Baltimore's development community was focused on the City Council vote on Harbor Point this week, a crew of test-boring workers set up equipment at the corner of Charles and Read streets in Mount Vernon. They fired up a derrick and drilled down through the asphalt to see if a new eight-story apartment building could rise just a couple of blocks from the Washington Monument.
If this one gets built — and there have been unkept promises at Charles and Read before — an unattractive, gap-toothed hole in the neighborhood would be filled with what promises to be a stylish apartment house with an expansive view on Baltimore history.
This corner has been a forlorn and desolate parking lot for decades. I can only imagine how this intersection once looked, when a pair of Victorian mansions (and a pretty spectacular garden too) were "the center of the exclusive social life of the city," as a 1932 Sun story described this then-doomed address.
One of the homes, a 30-room brownstone, was owned by Mayor James H. Preston and, before that, Gov. Frank Brown. Mayor Preston planned the formation of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra here, as well as the refurbishment of Mount Vernon Place. News stories talked of its elaborate chandeliers and the gold and needlepoint furniture. Here he entertained Cardinal James Gibbons at the 50th anniversary of his ordination while the refreshment table held raspberry red ices in the shape of a bishop's miter. Newspaper titan William Randolph Hearst and politico William Jennings Bryan were guests, too. Society writers loved the address.
There is literary history, too. These fines homes had carriage houses. And in one, facing Read Street, the Vagabond Players had their little theater. Zelda Fitzgerald's early 1930s play, "Scandelabra," was performed in that Read Street carriage-house-turned-theater, at the time she and her husband, novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, lived in Baltimore. Sorry, no trace of anything survives here.
History and architecture didn't matter much when the drawing rooms, marble-trimmed fireplaces and plaster ceilings came down for a parking lot in 1936. There was talk (or at least newspaper stories) about a high-rise here in the 1980s. There was likewise similar talk in the 1920s about an apartment hotel on this spot. Both fizzled. The parking lot is owned by Kingdon Gould Jr., who was once ambassador to Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
I sat in the nearby Morton Street offices of SMG Architects one evening this week and viewed drawings that had earlier been unveiled at the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. Walter Schamu, a principal of the firm, told me that "as a good Episcopalian," he wanted his proposed new apartment to have an opening in the back in this U-shaped building so that sunlight could still shine through the stained-glass windows at the adjoining Emmanuel Church on Cathedral Street. It was at this church that the future Duchess of Windsor, Baltimore's Wallis Warfield, was baptized.
Schamu and his staff have tucked an infinity swimming pool into that same light court. The building will conform to the 90-foot height restriction so as not to compete with the monument or draw neighborhood ire. Three levels of underground parking are also planned. The architects are reserving a corner space for a restaurant. The first floor will be trimmed in Brazilian hardwood; apartments on the top floors will be two stories in height.
Maybe this set of architectural plans will be the charm that fills the space at Charles and Read. Certainly the neighborhood has been on an upswing of late, with the new Angelos Law Center at the University of Baltimore and the 1209 Apartments just up the street.
I also spoke with SMG architect Charles "Chuck" Patterson, who lives nearby in Mount Vernon, about how the neighborhood has been reawakened by the numerous students and young professionals living here.
"The success of a neighborhood seems to be measured by whether you have a Chipotle, a frozen yogurt store, a pet shop and a Starbucks. Mount Vernon meets this test," he said.