Stepping back in time at the Poe House

Stepping back in time at the Poe House

A red sign went up a few days ago on a reproduction gas street lamp, marking Edgar Allan Poe Square. The square is actually just off West Lexington Street at Amity Street in West Baltimore. Baltimore's Poe House stands there, at 203 N. Amity St. in the Poppleton neighborhood.

Tiny houses such as this one, in a location that will test a native-born Baltimorean's knowledge of streets and geography, are difficult to find. I applaud anyone who locates it successfully. You will be rewarded by an atmospheric Baltimore experience.

West Baltimore has suffered decades of depopulation. There are now entire vacant blocks where homes once stood. On a bright July day, the effect is striking. You stand at the Poe House and look west, and you see nothing but weedy grass and the trees that survived in a backyard or two. The effect is pleasant but will last only until the University of Maryland expands here.

In the meantime, the summer of 2015 affords an opportunity to step back in time and consider West Baltimore as if it had been the subject of an 1835 watercolor landscape.

By 1833, Poe was living in the home, which was rented by the Clemm family. He was a boarder in the tiny dwelling.

"There was nothing facing the Poe House while he lived there. It stood at the absolute western extreme of the city. It could have been the farthest-west rowhouse in Baltimore at the time," said David F. Gaylin, the author of "Edgar Allan Poe's Baltimore," which was released late last month. "The rest of the Amity Street block was not constructed until after the Civil War. Amity Street was a dirt road and was not paved until the end of the 19th century."

Poe and the Clemm family carried water from a creek, Schroeder Run, that was 150 yards west of the house.

"If you stand at Lexington Street and look west, you can see how the land dips down where the stream flowed," Gaylin told me.

The name Schroeder endures in the neighborhood as the name of a street.

Gaylin, who lives in Parkville, became a Poe devotee years ago. He was fascinated by visits to his grandmother, who lived in Fells Point. She would take him to Broadway and point northward, toward Church Home and Hospital, and tell him Poe died there.

"I see Baltimore from a completely different perspective now that I finished the book," he said. In the process of completing his work, he located numerous 19th-century images of Baltimore, including photos of Amity Street before and after the construction of the Poe Homes, an early public housing project.

Lisa Lewenz, manager of the Poe House (open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from Memorial Day to the end of December), said the house drew more than 6,000 visitors last year.

"I think of it as a cocktail party with no drinks. People come and talk and meet each other," she said. "It really is a treat for them. They come here and as they leave, they cross a threshold and can experience the rest of the city and visit the places Poe would have known. They can go on to Lexington Market, where the Poe-Clemm household would have bought its potatoes and cheese. If the actual buildings are no longer there, the places are."

The power of literature is mighty. When I arrived at Amity Street, two women, Giuliana Allen and Chiara Zanetti, were conversing in Italian. They said they have roots in Padua, Italy, but had read Poe as students and wanted to learn more about him.

They did not know whether the house would be open and took a chance and knocked on the door. They were rewarded with a tour.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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