Annapolis historian, Belair Mansion advocate Shirley Baltz dies at 95

John McNamara
Contact Reporterjmcnamara@capgaznews.com

Pam Williams remembers the day in 1984 when she went to hear Shirley Baltz deliver a lecture on the history of Annapolis.

Williams, now the manager of historic properties for the city of Bowie, had tagged along with a friend to hear Baltz — a longtime Bowie resident — discuss the goings-on in and around the state capital through the course of history.

“She brought that story to life,” Williams said. “It wasn’t just facts and figures. She talked about those people like she’d just had breakfast with them. I was mesmerized.”

So much so, in fact, that Williams followed in Baltz’s footsteps, going to work for a city tour company called Three Centuries Tours, now part of Watermark. Baltz worked there as well. Eventually, Williams landed in Bowie, where she ultimately took over as the city’s de facto historian — another role Baltz once filled.

“I’m sitting in this desk today doing what I do because of Shirley Baltz,” Williams said. “She was an inspiration to me, she’s been a mentor to me, she’s been a friend.”

Baltz, 95, died last week in Hammonton, New Jersey. A memorial service for her is scheduled at 1 p.m. Oct. 15 at the Belair Mansion in Bowie.

Baltz, who grew up in Chicago and worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, had a lifetime fascination with history, according to her daughter, Melanie Murphy.

She wasn’t formally trained from an academic standpoint, something that often led her to downplay her expertise and contributions. But to friends and colleagues in the local historical community, her efforts loomed large.

“She just plunge into voluntary research and made herself an expert,” said Susan Pearl, who worked as a historical researcher for the Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission for 30 years. “And she was wonderful about sharing her expertise.”

Baltz’s passion for the past knew no bounds. She was involved in doing volunteer research on a Colonial Annapolis project with Ed Papenfuse in the early 1970s. Papenfuse later served as the Maryland state archivist from 1975-2013. She turned some of that research into her first book, “The Quays of the City," which was published in 1975.

Subsequent authors who wrote of Annapolis’ history used her work as a foundation, colleagues said.

“Above all, Shirley loved history and did an excellent job keeping (those) who care about the past excited about what we learned, and accurate about what we wrote. We will miss her,” Papenfuse wrote in an email.

Papenfuse called Baltz was the ultimate authority on Annapolis cabinet-maker John Shaw (1745-1829), who built most of the furniture first used in both legislative chambers of the Maryland State House.

She herself once said she could be dropped into the middle of Annapolis city life during the 18th century and fit right in with residents — that’s how familiar she was with the personalities and particulars of the city.

“She probably knew more about the people who ate, slept and lived in Annapolis in the 18th century than anyone alive,” Williams said.

As a tour guide, the depth of her knowledge was such that she loathed working with slow-moving groups. Baltz, friends said, always wanted to cover more ground — literally and figuratively — than her groups did.

“She would go as long as people would stay with her,” recalled Murphy.

Her contributions to the historical knowledge and preservation in Bowie were no less significant. Her home on Fleming Lane — she and her husband were original Levitt owners, arriving in Bowie in 1963 — sat behind the Belair Mansion. She could look out her front window and see it.

Over time, once her children grew up, it virtually became another one of her offspring, Murphy said.

The mansion served as City Hall until 1978 and at one point, the building even included a substation for the Prince George’s County police in the basement. Once city government left the property, nobody seemed to know what might happen to it next. There was even briefly talk of converting the Colonial mansion into a bed and breakfast.

Baltz leapt into the breach with a vengeance, determined to preserve and restore the property to some semblance of its former grandeur. It was a process that took more than a decade.

“It became kind of crusade for her,” Murphy recalled. “She was one of the founding members of the Friends of Belair Estate, going before the council and legislature and asking for funding. At the time, no one was really protecting the historic value of it. The mansion was kind of just there for the taking and it just needed a lot of work to preserve it.”

Baltz wrote or helped write three books about the history of the mansion. Her research was part of the application that ultimately landed the estate on the National Register of Historic Places. Her knowledge and expertise were instrumental in helping re-purpose the building into a museum in 1995, which Williams now oversees.

“She and others worked so hard to get this building restored,” Williams said. “She was at the forefront of that.”

Baltz eventually left Bowie, moving to New Jersey to be closer to one of her daughters. In her later years, her eyesight failed her. That robbed her of the ability to read — a difficult burden for someone so interested in history.

She made the best of it, though, devouring nonfiction books on tape to feed her passion. She was also endlessly curious about the work old friends like Williams and Pearl were doing, wanting to hear every detail about their work during long phone conversations.

“She loved hearing about the things I was working on,” Pearl recalled. “Two weeks before she died, when we had our last long conversation, she was pumping me with questions. She was interested in everything.”

“My motivation has been my love of history, for as long as I can remember,” Baltz once wrote. “It helps me to place myself in time and to understand how we’ve reached this point. I think it’s sad that so few people know the rich heritage of this country. Personally, they remind me of someone at sea in a dinghy with no oars.”

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