With FlowerMart as backdrop, Mount Vernon is thriving

11 E. Chase St. being converted into Algonquin apartments

Scenes from the first day of FlowerMart. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun video)

As many times as it rolls around, I never outgrow the FlowerMart, which opened Friday and runs through Saturday. It's held in May and timed to take advantage of the best part of Maryland's spring. Any event that draws so many families, especially babies in strollers, mothers and grandmothers, to a hallowed Baltimore neighborhood gets my vote, even if, truth be told, I am not much of crab cake fancier.

Mount Vernon has long fascinated me. I was not long free of those baby carriages when I was taken along Charles Street and spied an exotic retail mix of first-floor and basement-level shops selling old maps, rare clocks, books, antiques or other items not found at Woolworth's. My fascination only developed with this urban neighborhood of noble monuments, churches and their congregations, and aged, often mysterious homes that have histories hard to prove or disprove.

I sometimes stand at the corner of Monument and Cathedral streets and consider a few visitors who passed this corner. President Abraham Lincoln spent the night here on Cathedral Street in a private home. The abdicated king of England, Edward VIII, stayed at what is now the Mount Vernon Club. Charles Lindbergh, the aviator who flew the Atlantic, spoke at a luncheon at the Alcazar Hotel, now the Baltimore School for the Arts. Tchaikovsky conducted at what is the Peabody's Miriam A. Friedberg Hall. Oscar Wilde spent a night or two at the old Mount Vernon Hotel, now owned by Agora Publishing Inc. on West Monument Street.

You did not always need an invitation to a dinner party to gain admission to some of Mount Vernon's select addresses. As Maryland's wealthy and gentry started taking off for greener residences in the 1920s, the neighborhood's homes often became converted to physicians' offices. That changed again maybe 30 years ago, when doctors and dentists packed up and left and caused a noble address, 11 E. Chase St., to seal its doors.

This spring, the doors and windows of this superb, if underappreciated, apartment house are open again. Construction crews are returning this 1912 gem to residential status.

"This is wonderful news," said Steve Shen, an engineer who lives in Mount Vernon and reviews historic preservation issues for his neighborhood. "The building was not modified too badly when it became professional offices. The spacious and grand apartments will return. It is not going to be cut up into a rabbit warren."

Accompanying the return of 11 E. Chase is a reversion to its original name, the Algonquin. A sign proclaiming the arrival of refurbished apartments appeared a few weeks ago. This is a structure (it shares space on the block with the Hotel Belvedere) that looks as if it were a piece of Wedgwood china. The building is decorated with glazed tiles of classical figures.

My ophthalmologist had an office here. His waiting room seemed like a fine drawing room. I still recall the windows and the wood patterns in the floor. As a child, I thought this would make a snazzy apartment.

Shen told me that Mount Vernon somehow weathered, even prospered at times, in the economic downtown of the last six years.

"It's Baltimore's top historic district," he said, meaning that his group handles between 250 and 300 applications for some sort of architectural approval, or rejection, annually. "This year has been a banner year for us."

He said these projects take time. The Algonquin, aka 11 E. Chase, was initially discussed for reopening three years ago.

"It was very slow at first," Shen said. "It was like a very large cruiser coming up to speed and now, in 2013, it finally has momentum."

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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