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New walking tours offer glimpse of Hampden history

To get to Hampden Falls, you have to really want to get to Hampden Falls.

Located off Falls Road beneath the bridge at Wyman Park Drive, it's a little-known gem of Hampden history, isolated and hidden from the road, accessible only by picking one's way down a rough-hewn set of steps to a wooden observation deck. It used to be called Round Falls, a man-made dam that serviced Rock Mill in the early 1800s. In 1930, Baltimore City tore down the old grist mill for flood control. Developers Bill Struever and Ted Rouse built the stairway and the platform with a bench in 2001.

At mid-afternoon Aug. 1, Candace Chance sat at the idyllic site, looking at her cell phone. She said she came on her lunch break, "to relax and be a part of nature."

Chance, 26, works for the Parks & People Foundation, located in one of Hampden's best-known historical treasures, the former Stieff Silver Building at 800 Wyman Park Drive. The iconic building dates to 1924. The former factory is also home to Johns Hopkins University's Whiting School of Engineering.

Stieff Silver and Hampden Falls are part of Stone Hill Passage, one of five free, self-guided walking tours created by the Greater Hampden Heritage Alliance. The tours highlight the history of a community better known for its boutique stores and restaurants on The Avenue.

"If you walk the whole thing, it goes all over Hampden, so it's 5-6 miles," said Nathan Dennies, a volunteer for the organizaton Baltimore Heritage and chairman of the Alliance.

Organizers are raising money to print brochures with a fold-out section of blurbs about each stop on the tours. The brochures will be unveiled at Hampdenfest on Sept. 20.

"We want to distribute them for free," Dennies said..

Also helping to organize the tours are Hampden merchants, including Paula Bogert, of PJ Bogert Graphic Design, who designed the brochure, and her husband, photographer Denny Lynch. The idea, Bogert said, is to "get more visitors to Hampden that buy shoes and eat at the restaurants. It's another reason to come to Hampden."

"It's giving people a sense of place," said Alex Fox, who lives in a historic former church in Hampden.

One of the most unique historic spaces is the old Hampden Presbyterian Church, 3649 Falls Road, The stone church, built in 1875, has been reinvented over the years as a community center, a medical clinic and office space. Now, the Hunting Ground clothing store is downstairs and upstairs is an unusual open living space for Fox, 26, and his roommate, Joey Rubolotta. They are slowly fixing up the 30-by-36-square-foot space with many of its original stained glass windows, one of which is gone and had a view of the Jones Falls Valley.

They are also adding their own flourishes, like a mounted deer head and a dilapidated sofa suspended in mid-air near the high, sloping rafters.

They also rent out the upstairs space for weddings, birthday parties and other events under the business name Church and Company, with plans to incorporate.

Dennies, 25, was married there last year and a fundraiser for the walking tour project was held there Aug. 1.

For one recent party, "I made 60 corn dogs in the kitchen," said Fox, the onsite manager. "This is what I do."

Tours listed in a sample brochure include:

• The Clipper Passage, featuring Woodberry Mill, Meadow Mill, the Brick Hill neighborhood, the Bloody Bucket bar ( named for fights staged there by a boxing promoter in the 1950s and 60s), and industrialist Robert Poole's Poole and Hunt Machine Works, the largest iron employer in Baltimore in the 1880s.

• Maple Hill Passage, home of the Hampden Library, Roosevelt Park and Evergreen on the Falls, 3300 Falls Road, where Mount Vernon Mill supervisor Albert Carroll once lived.

• The Avenue Passage, home to Zissimos Bar, which dates to the 1930s; Hampden Hall, originally a Civil War veterans' meeting house; the former Ideal Theatre, which is now part of Avenue Antiques; the old Northern District police station with its Victorian turrets and stables at 3355 Keswick Road; and the Art Deco-styled Schwing Motor Company Building, now vacant, in the same block.

• Roland Passage, centered on Roland Avenue and home to the Rotunda shopping mall, St. Mary's Episcopal Church and Cemetery, St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School and Hampden Baptist Church, once known for its revivalist tent meetings.

• Stone Hill Passage, which in addition to Hampden Falls and the Stieff Silver building includes Mount Vernon Mill No. 1, now redeveloped as a mixed-use complex, and the old Crittenton House, once a home for unwed mothers. Developer John Brooks wants to convert the mansion to apartments and build townhouses on the site of an old dormitory, to the consternation of some area residents and business owners.

Stone Hill Passage also includes 1800s abolitionist Elisha Tyson's summer home on Pacific Street in the Stone Hill neighborhood.

The brochure highlights advertising slogans for businesses of yesteryear on what is now The Avenue, including Helen Anders Beauty Salon: "If your hair is not becoming to you, you should be coming to us."

And the brochure tells what some of those businesses are now, including Cavacos Drugstore, now Sugar, a sex toy shop; J.P Benson Hardware, now Cafe Hon; and Sandler's Department Store, now headquarters for the Royal Farms chain of convenience stores.

Since 2006, the old Tyson House has been the home of Mark Thistel, 48, owner of FreedomCar, a chauffered transportation service, his wife, Robyne Lyles, and their daughter, Maeve, 13. The family has spent "a ton" of money renovating the house, which is structurally sound and mostly original, down to its mantle and trim, Thistel said.

Living there is "a pinch-me experience," Thistel said. 'it's a very special place to be. It was built by a very remarkable person."

He launched into a brief history of Tyson, a noted philanthropist and financier of the Jones Falls Turnpike, who also was active in the Underground Railroad and was said to have used his own house as a hiding place in the process of freeing hundreds of slaves and later prosecuting the slave traders.

After Tyson's death in 1824, the stone house passed to the Mount Vernon Cotton Duck Co. It served throught the years as a mill supervisor's residence and dorm for female mill workers. The company sold it in 1961 to an employee, who died a year before Thistel bought it.

Tyson's activism may be rubbing off on Thistel. He too has been a local activist in the past year as residents fought plans for nearby Crittenton. Residents say the project is too dense for the area and its roads.

"I would never presume to have one tenth of Tyson's courage," Thistel said. "That said, I do find myself in the position of advocate."

It's that kind of history that Dennies wants visitors and locals to know about. He said he hopes people will incorporate the walking tours into their daily lives, like walking their dogs.

Dennies is thinking about leading some of the tours personally.

"It would be a good way to promote the brochure," he said.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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