If you want to learn the history and habits of a Baltimore neighborhood, just spend part of a weekend on a community walking tour. Residents open their homes and gardens for a peek at what is normally locked and bolted.
I am often startled by the sophistication and variety of what people cultivate in tight garden spaces. I also like the relativity I encounter here. These are personality gardens designed by people who tailor spaces for comfort and privacy. They understand the demands a Baltimore summer makes on city living and come up with some amazing responses.
I've been visiting Reservoir Hill all my life, and its annual house and garden tour has been a time to explore the unexpected side of the neighborhood. The tour is Saturday and Sunday; 27 gardens and 11 homes will be open.
"I don't know that anyone has had much professional landscaping help. People make their own gardens here. They reflect the personalities of the owners," said Paul Walker, a Mount Royal Terrace resident whose home and garden will be open on the tour. "A core group of people come back every year."
On a Sunday drive more than 50 years ago, my mother pointed out a stately old home atop a small hill on Reservoir Street at Park Avenue. I asked about the place; it looked mysterious, like the setting out of some Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew novel.
My mother shot back an answer, something on the order of "Don't be ignorant. Don't you know that is the Norwegian Seamen's Home?"
After that answer, accurate at the time, I realized that the corner of Reservoir and Park was no ordinary neighborhood intersection. Who would have thought Baltimore needed a residence for Norwegian sailors?
This house, just about the oldest in the neighborhood, has a fancy pedigree, but I find the stories behind the surrounding rowhouses just as fascinating.
On a Reservoir Hill tour a few years ago, I discovered a deep and well-stocked goldfish pond constructed around the remnants of a stone carriage house tucked into an hillside. It happened to be a hot June afternoon, and I did not want to leave this shady garden and its amazing in-ground aquarium. The owners informed me their pool was low-maintenance — the less they did, the more the fish prospered.
"This year we've had a fish population explosion," said Reservoir Street resident Elizabeth Schaaf, whose garden, which is on the tour, includes a fish pond. "I brought in a lot of moss from the country last year. This spring we had jack-in-the-pulpits."
I learned the neighborhood was something of a spy belt during the World War II period. I learned this after reading Sam Tanenhaus' biography of Whittaker Chambers and found that Reservoir Hill had left-leaning photographers who made unauthorized copies of government documents for Soviet officials.
This is a neighborhood of atmospheric architecture and unusual urban geography. The 1900-era homes seem to acknowledge that Druid Hill Park is just up the street. There are plenty of porches and places to sit and listen to an Orioles game on an old radio on a July night.
It's also a place where the old apartment houses have curious names like the Monterey, Nel-Mar and Sylcrest. It has also had its share of millionaires, such as Capt. Isaac Emerson of Bromo-Seltzer fame, who constructed his Emersonian Apartments here.
Writer Gertrude Stein lived here briefly with her family, which included David Bachrach, photographer to the famous. Every so often, Turner Classic Movies will show Ginger Rogers in "Kitty Foyle," the 1940 film based on the novel by prolific author Christopher Morley, who spent part of his childhood on Park Avenue. If you comb through Morley's prose, you will find veiled but unmistakable descriptions of Reservoir Hill and its environs.
The Historic Reservoir Hill Tour runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets, which are sold at Park Avenue and Reservoir Street, are $15 and are good for two days of visiting.