The Homewood Museum at Johns Hopkins University has spent more than $100,000 to restore a small, separate brick building with lift-up seats, graffiti on its wood-paneled walls and a crescent moon carved into its steeple-like ventilation stack.
Some people might say it's a lot of money to spend on an old outhouse, even an unusually elegant one built in 1801. But Catherine Rogers Arthur doesn't see it that way.
"It's really a very interesting little building," said Arthur, director and curator of the museum overlooking North Charles Street. "We joke that it was built like a brick (pause) privy."
And she wonders which is rarer and more historic — the privy itself, which was built for Charles Carroll Jr., son of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, last signer of the Declaration of Independence, or the graffiti that was scrawled on the chestnut walls when the old Homewood House was rented as the Country School for Boys from 1897-1910.
The school later moved to Northern Parkway and became Gilman School, Arthur said.
On Friday, when temperatures hovered around 100 degrees, the unventilated outhouse was steamy inside, in more ways than one. The graffiti is just as boyish and randy in its own way as any today. The female anatomy is drawn in all its glory and there are several recommendations to call a certain attractive woman of the day for a good time.
The only difference from modern-day graffiti is that the woman's address was listed, because there were no telephones yet.
There are also plenty of scatological observations, such as:
"New York is the place for money,
Boston is the place for wit,
Baltimore is the place for pretty girls,
And this is the place to ..."
"I can't believe nobody ever painted over this," said Arthur, who gave the Baltimore Messenger a tour of the 10-foot by 13-foot building with arched windows, a high-domed ceiling and separate entrances for men and women. Still visible is evidence that the privy was retrofitted with a stovepipe to keep the boys warm during chilly visits to the bathroom.
The privy, with termite damage and cracks in its walls where the mortar joints had opened, was last used by the university as a garden shed in the 1950s, Arthur said.
A little bit of the graffiti is new.
"Occasionally, someone busts into it and leaves some," Arthur said.
Now, it is being restored in conjunction with the separately funded, $500,000 restoration of the south portico, or "grand porch" of the main house, which Arthur said was imagined by Carroll as "the stage where he was going to play his life out."
Carroll died in 1832 and the house was later owned by William Wyman and eventually given to Hopkins, Arthur said. It now houses the museum and a gift shop. A ribbon-cutting for the portico project is scheduled for Sept. 27, and the public will be able to peek inside the privy behind the house, Arthur said.
Arthur said the outhouse restoration has been ongoing at least since 2008, when its roof was replaced. But private grants for the outhouse restoration have been used up and Arthur must apply for more money to improve the privy's ventilation and stabilize its interior walls.
"We're in a holding pattern until more funds are secured," she said.
But Arthur said she is working on getting signage for the privy, "so people will know what this funny thing is in the middle of the back lawn. It's Baltimore's best-kept secret."