A solitary saxophone player walks through Southeast Baltimore's Patterson Park, enters the park's pagoda and climbs the steps of the 1891 structure.
The musician, 74-year-old Marion Grden, plays "Summertime," then "Sailing Down the Chesapeake Bay" as he ascends the pagoda's time-worn iron steps. Then, looking toward Canton, he lets loose with "Harbor Lights."
The recent event was a beautiful thing, a prelude to this Saturday's serenade of park visitors by 100 massed saxophonists -- including Grden.
The occasion? The reopening amid much fanfare of the Patterson Park pagoda.
Perched on the pagoda's triple-stacked balconies, the musicians -- a number of them neighborhood residents -- will entertain the crowd as part of a three-hour tribute to the delightfully quirky -- and exquisitely restored -- Victorian observatory.
The event runs from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and also includes a Civil War re-enactment featuring signal flags directed at Fort McHenry, tours of the pagoda, family games, an all-pagoda art exhibit, rickshaw rides and performances of Horn's Punch and Judy show.
There'll also be a welcome by Mary Roby, president of the Friends of Patterson Park, some speeches by public officials and a formal ribbon-cutting. If it rains, everything gets moved to Sunday.
Everyone is invited to the free event. You can buy food and drink or bring your own picnic. If you have some old photos of the pagoda, bring them along, too -- and your memories of the pagoda.
A lookout tower
The Patterson Park pagoda stands just off the corner of East Lombard Street and South Patterson Park Avenue, a little past a pair of glistening white-marble entry portals.
Designed as a people's lookout tower, it was built in late 1891 (though it may not have been totally finished until 1892, as numbers indicate on its stained-glass transom). It sits on a hill rising over the Patapsco River (the Baltimore harbor at this point). The structure's vaguely Asian motif was then chic. Certainly, architect Charles H. Latrobe was fascinated by the East.
Over the years, the building suffered the ups and downs of municipal maintenance. After its initial deterioration, it was closed, given minor repairs and briefly reopened a number of times. This last shutdown lasted 13 years.
Now, thanks to a historically accurate $500,000 total refurbishment that took eight months, the pagoda looks like the pride of the 1891 Park Board. Credit the state and city coffers for this investment.
Public tours of the pagoda run from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. On view will be a structure that looks in part like something stranded from a World's Fair, possibly confected by a disciple of the Eiffel Tower school of architecture. It is a valued item in Baltimore's vault of underappreciated treasures.
A playful exterior color palette of olive, yellow ochre and rusty burgundy red decorates window sashes, balconies and railings. All the windows (there seem to be at least a zillion) are inset with panes of contrasting colored and stained glass -- much of it purple, blue and orange. Atop the slate roof is a sporty weather vane. It works, too.
The pagoda's interior is reminiscent of a roomy, bright lighthouse. Its iron steps are wide and generously spaced -- well-trod too. You can see that this place has been much used by generations of people.
A trip to the top, about 60 feet off the ground, is not advised for people who don't like heights. And you don't have to go outside on the balconies if you don't want to. Each level has its own indoor viewing area.
The views from the pagoda provide an intimate and graceful picture of Baltimore. Situated within the emerald-green setting of the park, the observatory treats its visitors to an unexpectedly lush panorama.
Without binoculars, you can catch a glimpse of many Baltimore landmarks -- the American Brewery, the City College tower, the urban villages of Fells Point, Highlandtown, Butchers Hill and Canton, the cranes at Dundalk Marine Terminal. Plus scads of church towers, chimneys and Formstone walls. And isn't that Druid Hill Park off in the distance? And don't they all look better filtered through the spring-green of maple trees?
"It will afford a view of the Patapsco river to Seven-Foot Knoll, including Sparrow's Point, Fort Carroll, Fort McHenry and the shipping in the harbor. At night the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad's big transfer boat, twinkling with electric lights from stem to stern, glides across the river through the darkness like a spectre," The Sun reported of the then-new pagoda in an August 1891 story under the heading "Pretty Public Gardens."
The pagoda celebration coincides with Fort McHenry's 10th annual Civil War Weekend -- and there will be some interesting connections. An 1814 flag from the fort will be raised at the start of the pagoda event, and after the saxes have quieted down, members of the Signal Corps Association, a re-enactors group, will stand on the pagoda's topmost deck and signal with flags -- measuring approximately 5 feet by 5 feet -- across the Baltimore landscape and the harbor to Fort McHenry.
"At 3 o'clock, we're going to fire a cannon when we see the flags. I hope they'll be able to hear it. They should," says Scott Sheads, a ranger-historian at the fort.
Sheads points out that during the British attack on Baltimore in 1814, what is now Patterson Park was known as Hampstead Hill. The future pagoda site -- on a strategically important hill -- was a major component of Baltimore's land defenses.
"It is very rare in Maryland to have a surviving War of 1812 earthworks -- a redoubt -- and the pagoda sits on top of one of them," Sheads says.
He adds that while Fort McHenry was under attack by the British navy, there were 15,000 militiamen from Maryland and Pennsylvania (the majority Baltimorean citizen-soldiers) entrenched on the hill where the pagoda sits. A U.S. Navy crew, from the Guerriere, manned the artillery redoubt, the first line of defense.
"During the bombardment of Fort McHenry, we know that many citizens came out and watched the naval fight from Hampstead Hill," says Sheads.
He reads an 1814 letter from a Lt. John Harris, who while at the future pagoda site wrote home to relatives in Pennsylvania: "I think the handsomest sight I ever saw was during the bombardment to see the bombs and rockets flying and the firing from all three forts [McHenry, Lazaretto and Covington]. I could see plenty of Redcoats but could not get within musket shot of them." (There were few buildings then in Southeast Baltimore to block his view to the harbor.)
During the Civil War, Sheads says, the hill was pressed into service again, this time serving as a U.S. Army general hospital and Camp Washburn (named after Gov. Israel Washburn of Maine, because the first troops to enter the camp arrived from Maine).
The cannon at Patterson Park -- they sit at the pagoda's base -- arrived in 1914 for the Star-Spangled Banner Centennial celebration. Sheads thinks they date from the War of 1812.
"It's hard to say where they came from, but we think they were dug up from along the edge of the harbor -- maybe in Fells Point," he says. "As docks were being built -- or the harbor dredged -- workers would find cannon."
History -- civilian as well as military -- is one of the themes of Saturday's pagoda celebration. The old photos that visitors are asked to bring will be displayed at the event, and collected or copied for use in future exhibits relating to the history of the pagoda and park.
Visitors' memories of the pagoda will be videotaped by oral historians from the neighborhood, also for use in future exhibits.
The afternoon's events are jointly sponsored by the Friends of Patterson Park and Baltimore City's Department of Recreation and Parks.