5:00 AM EDT, September 12, 2013
Looking forward is generally considered a good thing; it comes highly recommended by motivational speakers and driving instructors, and it's the credo of digital-age entrepreneurs, urban planners and serial daters. But if you constantly look forward, you miss the pleasures of the periphery. Take St. Paul Street.
Baltimore has a simple north-south, east-west street grid that makes commuting tolerable for the urban driver. But the grid is so good that at times, when the lights are with you, you miss things.
For example, if you only drive St. Paul — or walk it or bike it and never look up — you will certainly miss the big clock in Durward Center's third-floor front.
Durward Center is the name of a man, not a building, though you could regard them as one and the same. He bought his corner rowhouse in 1976, during a robust age of urban pioneering and homesteading, for $24,000; he spent much more than that renovating it. His passion is the tower clock.
A restoration expert, Center installed three such clocks in the exterior walls of his grand Victorian — one, with brassy hands, facing St. Paul, and two on the 21st Street facade. One of the latter includes an ornate dragon figure, and the dragon's mechanical tail is involved in chime-ringing.
People who have bothered to look up know Center's corner as "the clock house." But that's the key to appreciating this gem near the Old Goucher neighborhood and many others around town: You have to look up.
The grandeur of old Baltimore — the care and commitment that went into the design and construction of buildings here in the 19th century, in particular — are best revealed during walks and only when we look up, or to the left or right. You can't see these things through a car roof. You don't notice them when you walk and text at the same time. You miss them when your shirt or skirt gets caught in the grinding gears of life.
Looking forward is a good thing, but you don't want to miss what's to your east or west, or above and below.
I was pretty much shocked recently at the progress in home renovations along Broadway, north of the Johns Hopkins Hospital's city-within-a-city. This used to be a drive-by area: not much to see, lots of abandoned rowhouses, and properties in terrible condition. Someone once showed me a well-preserved photograph of North Broadway on Easter Sunday, circa 1900, when it was a handsome and clean boulevard. There are signs of its resurrection there these days.
If you drive down Greenmount Avenue — and many people do, usually as quickly as they can — and never take a right onto one of the side streets, you miss more than you might think: The genuine neighborhood renaissance in Barclay, for instance; the stunning murals on the exterior walls of numerous rowhouses south of North Avenue; the astonishing construction of new homes on 20th Street, just off Greenmount; the row of fabulous-looking, Georgetown-like homes in the middle of East Oliver, across from the Area 405 art space, with the city's new school of design a block to the west.
If you stand on Oliver and never turn to look behind you, you miss the handsome entrance to Green Mount Cemetery.
And if you never pay much attention to Green Mount Cemetery — final resting place of Baltimore's 19th-century movers and shakers, plus Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth — you'll miss something really odd about the walls. A reader of this column, Len Louthan, an engineer based in Baltimore, pointed it out in an email:
"There's a high stone wall that looks dark and forbidding, which is fitting. Atop the wall is a chain link fence, topped with barb wire — even more menacing. But here's the thing: The barb wire is tilted inward, as if to stop the internees from getting out. What the hell? They're not going anywhere! Take a look next time you go by and let me know if it strikes you as odd."
Indeed, the curl in the crown of the wire fence seems to have been manufactured to contain rather than repel. Perhaps that is the sort of oddity an engineer is apt to notice, but you're not even in the game of noticing if you go zipping by.
Mount Vernon is a treasure island for walkers willing to stop and gawk. There are stunning ornaments above the ground floors of the old mansions, and surprising tower rooms and crowns and cornices. The other day, at Madison and Charles, I looked up and noticed an ornate wrought-iron balcony, evoking Madrid, in the second-floor rear of a grand rowhouse.
All of those amazing touches testify to the aspirations and dreams of their original owners, and their belief in Baltimore. New Baltimoreans, diverse and adventurous, have picked up on that old belief, and, while it seems long in coming, you can feel the real energy of another renaissance.
If you don't look to the left and right, above and below, you'll miss it.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun