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Lifestyle

SoWeBo

Walking around Baltimore's Inner Harbor is always a pleasant and entertaining way to spend a sunny afternoon. But if you're feeling adventurous, go west. A 20-minute walk brings you to a colorful, unusual area worth exploring. "SoWeBo" (short for "South West Baltimore"), designated a National Register Historic District in 1967, is actually made up of two adjoining neighborhoods -- Union Square and Hollins Market -- bordered by Baltimore Street on the north, Pratt Street on the south, Schroeder Street on the east and Fulton Avenue on the west.

Home sweet home: These colorful rowhouses are on Hollins Street in SoWeBo. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Most of the land that now makes up SoWeBo originally belonged to Willow Brook, an estate built in 1799 by Thorowgood Smith, who served as Baltimore's mayor from 1804 to 1808. Willow Brook was intended as a summer home, but Smith went bankrupt before he could move in. He deeded the property to his nephew, merchant John Donnell, who was responsible for parceling out the first plots of land for the construction of homes. After his death, his sons further split up the property. In 1965, Willow Brook was torn down and Steuart Hill Elementary School was built on its grounds.

Shelter the spring: It may look like this pavilion just holds a drinking fountain, but it actually features a spring. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Gary Letteron, who has lived in the area for approximately 13 years and describes his occupation as "community forestry" (he plants trees in urban settings under a fellowship from the Open Society Institute), says that, according to the 2000 census, the neighborhood is made up of approximately 60 percent white residents and 40 percent African-American, with very few Asians or Hispanics -- "a working-class kind of neighborhood." Artist Philip Minion, who has lived there since 1982, says the makeup of the neighborhood "changes form block-to-block, almost house-to-house" although "there's always a new group of young peoplecoming through." Francis Rahl, an artist who works as a manager at Northrop Grumman and who has also lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years, agrees: "I think it's a good diverse mix of people."

At the center of the Union Square district is Union Square Park, a picturesque site with a Victorian-style fountain, curving walkways, large trees and a gazebo-like structure built over a spring which formerly supplied water to the B & O Railroad. John Donnell's sons approved the city's plan for the park in 1847, and most of the houses bordering it were built between 1850 and 1870. Some of Baltimore's wealthiest citizens lived on the Stricker Street side of the park, which earned it the nickname "Millionaires' Row."

Nobody home: Although it used to be a museum, the H. L. Mencken House is currently vacant. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Union Square was also the home of one of Baltimore's most famous citizens, H. L. Mencken, who is often referred to as "the Sage of Baltimore." The house where Mencken spent most of his life, at 1524 Hollins Street, opened in 1983 as a museum owned and run by the Baltimore City Life Museums, and was designated a National Historic Landmark two years later. When City Life Museums folded in 1997, the museum was closed and emptied, although it still displays a special commemorative plaque about its famous occupant. However, the home of another famous Baltimore-based author, Edgar Allan Poe, on Amity Street, is open to the public, although it has limited visiting hours. More evidence of Baltimore's literary past, along with rare books and manuscripts from the 15th to the 20th centuries, is available for purchase at the nearby 19th Century Shop. However, the store is open only by appointment and owner Tom Edsall prefers to do most of his business by mail order on the Internet.

The center of the Hollins Market district is the market itself. It is the oldest continuously operating public market in Baltimore. Named for the Hollins family, who owned large tracts of land in West Baltimore and whose members included many important figures in the city during the 19th century, Hollins Market opened in 1835. Its current structure, a brick Italian-style building, was erected between 1863 and 1864, at the height of the Civil War. Interestingly, during this time, the City Council refused to consider any bid for construction from parties who were not "known to be thoroughly and unconditionally Union men."

Choo choo: The B&O Railroad Museum holds antique steam engines and hosts programs throughout the year. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Another major area attraction is the B & O Railroad Museum. The museum is historically significant because it marks the original site of operations for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the oldest continually operating railroad system in the United States. Visitors to the museum can see over 200 major pieces of railroad equipment, a large, comprehensive selection of photos and train engines and cars from every period in railroad history. Much of it is displayed in the central Roundhouse, a former passenger car shop more than 200 feet in diameter that was built in 1883.

Each year, the neighborhood holds two large-scale events of a radically different nature: the Union Square Christmas Cookie Tour and the SoWeBohemian Festival. Selected homes, decorated for the holidays and set out with the owners' favorite cookies, are featured at the Cookie Tour, which takes place the second Sunday of December. By contrast, the SoWeBohemian Festival, which began in 1985 and takes place the last Sunday in May, features alternative music, poetry readings and art exhibits. In addition, the Lithuanian Hall on Hollins Street serves dinner to the public every Friday, and during the summer Minion screens family-friendly free movies in the park every other Friday.

Glass house: Anthony Corradetti attends to a customer at his studio and gallery. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Since the early 1980s, many artists have chosen to live and work in SoWeBo. However, the number of galleries is relatively small and their hours are limited. The most prominent area gallery belongs to glass artist Anthony Corradetti and is located directly across from the Market. Corradetti has owned and operated a glass blowing studio since 1981, and his work is part of the permanent collections of New York's Corning Museum of Glass, Washington's Renwick Gallery, and even the White House's Collection of American Crafts.

Next to Corradetti's studio is a building that is in the process of becoming the permanent headquarters of the Black Cherry Puppet Theatre, founded in 1980 by Michael Lamason. The group performs with marionettes and uses shadow, hand, light and rod puppets in shows ranging from traditional children's stories like "Hansel and Gretel" to unusual, adult-oriented shows with titles like "Creation Circus" and "Requiem for a Landfill." Ultimately, the building will contain a 50-seat theater as well as studios, offices, a resource center and possibly even a coffeehouse. Black Cherry purchased the building in 1997, groundbreaking occurred in April 2000, and Lamason says at present the renovation is about two-thirds complete. However, because approximately $200,000 still needs to be raised before the building can be completed, he can't say for sure when it will open. "Every year I say, 'Next year.'"

Have a seat: The patrons of Patrick's of Pratt Street are all smiles. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

In the mid-1990s SoWeBo suffered a blow when its three main eateries and meeting places -- the Cultured Pearl Mexican restaurant and bar, the Tell-Tale Hearth, and Gypsy's Cafe, all within a block of each other on Hollins Street -- permanently shut their doors. The Corner Coffee Shop, a small coffee bar at Arlington and Hollins streets closed down about the same time and remains vacant. At present, the only major neighborhood watering holes are the Hollins Street Pub (formerly Scallio's), a few doors down from the Cultured Pearl building, and Patrick's at West Pratt and Schroeder streets.

However, SoWeBo residents are hopeful about the future of theneighborhood and many are actively working to improve the quality of life there. For example, art gallery owner Bill Adler, another long-term resident of the area who has been prominently involved with the SoWeBo Festival, is currently renovating the Turnbull Mansion, one of the largest buildings in Union Square, with the aim of moving the gallery there. In the fall of 2001, a large group of neighborhood artists banded together to compete with several other Baltimore neighborhoods for a grant that would designate the area a cultural arts district. Although the grant was ultimately awarded to another neighborhood, Rahl believes some good was accomplished simply by applying for it. "There was an immense amount of cooperation in putting it together. ... It was an excellent effort; it was a real bridge-builder and a real eye-opener." Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun

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