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Jean H. Hepner, Fells Point activist

University of ChicagoMother's Day

Jean H. Hepner, an early Fells Point community activist who restored one of its residential landmarks and fought a planned interstate highway, died of injuries she suffered as a passenger in an automobile accident Feb. 1 on the Baltimore Beltway at Park Heights Avenue. She was 90.

Family members said Jean Rose Harvey was the first child born in Wisconsin in 1924. She was born in Milwaukee at eight minutes after midnight on Jan. 1. She was the daughter of James D. Harvey, a radio store owner who wrote a broadcasting column for the Milwaukee Journal, and Rhea Carson Blake, an occupational therapist.

She attended Rockford College and earned a degree in geography from the University of Chicago, where she met her future husband, a medical student.

After her marriage to Dr. Walter Ray Hepner Jr., a pediatrician, the couple lived in Galveston, Texas, and Columbia, Mo., where they restored old homes and their gardens. After moving to Baltimore in 1959 when Dr. Hepner took a post at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, they bought a home in Pinehurst.

"We had a great house with a magic garden on Midhurst Road," said her daughter, Susan Hepner Brennan, who lives in Armagh Village in Baltimore County. "I remember my father saying, 'Your mother needs a new project,' and we took off for Fell Street and a house that was condemned for human habitation."

Mrs. Hepner had met with Lucretia "Lu" Billings Fisher, who recognized the history of Fells Point in the mid-1960s when an interstate was planned through the waterfront community. Mrs. Fisher bought buildings, and after a lengthy interview, agreed to sell the Captain John Steele House on Fell Street to the Hepners.

"She vetted my parents about their intentions before she would allow them to buy the property from her," her daughter said. "We embraced the complexity and the beauty of Fells Point. It was a new world."

Family members said the house, at 931 Fell St., was one of the finest examples of Federal architecture in Baltimore.

"It was the oldest privately owned standing structure in Baltimore," said Mrs. Hepner's son James Harvey Hepner of Baltimore.

The family initially inspected their future home at 9:30 p.m. by flashlight — the electricity was turned off.

"There was exposed lath and horsehair plaster hanging down," her daughter said. "It was cruddy and dilapidated but had all the original windows."

While restoring the Fell Street residence, the family lived in an adjoining property that faces Wolfe Street. By the mid-1970s, they moved into the Fell Street home. Mrs. Hepner told friends she and her family were among the earliest "outlanders" — her term for people moving back to old city neighborhoods — in Southeast Baltimore.

While her husband worked on the home, Mrs. Hepner turned to community activism and successfully fought the plans for an interstate through Fells Point. She was a founding member of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell's Point and the Southeast Community Organization. In 2008, she received the Selfless Community Service Award for her efforts in that fight.

She was also an organizer of an annual Mother's Day Historic House Tour and opened her home to visitors.

She was active in the restoration of the Robert Long House at 810 Ann St., another aged Fells Point building that is now a museum and garden, where a memorial has been created in her honor.

"Jean had a special gift for horticulture," said Romaine Somerville, a former Preservation Society official. "She designed an 18th-century garden for the Robert Long House and planted it with descendants of plants brought from Europe by early settlers."

Mrs. Hepner maintained that garden for 20 years until moving to Oak Crest Village in Parkville nearly two years ago.

"Jean was often in the garden with her tools and deterrents, waging war on her sworn enemy, bindweed," said Ellen von Karajan, director of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell's Point. "She was a homemaker, preservationist and road fighter. She will be remembered by all who knew her as a true part of Fells Point."

A memorial service will be held at 12:30 p.m. March 1 at Chestnut Grove Presbyterian Church, 3701 Sweet Air Road in Phoenix.

In addition to her daughter and son, survivors include another son, Richard H. Hepner of Baltimore; a sister, Helen Julian of Idaho; seven grandchildren; and two great-granddaughters. Her husband of 40 years died in 1984. A son, Dr. Walter Ray Hepner III, died in 2006.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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