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Lucretia Fisher, city preservationist

Highway and Road TransportationLiteratureFeminismJustice SystemJohn F. Kennedy

Lucretia Billings Fisher, the leader of an early effort to save Fells Point and Federal Hill from a 1960s interstate highway, died of renal failure Friday at her Ruxton home. She was 98.

"Lu Fisher was way ahead of her time," said former Judge Thomas Ward, a fellow preservationist and former City Council member. "There weren't too many people who saw the possibilities of those neighborhoods when she did."

Born Lucretia Billings in Pittsburgh, she attended the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. Her father was a prominent physician and her mother was a Mayflower descendant.

In 1933, she married Dr. Murray A. Fisher, a Johns Hopkins physician, whose family was also active in Maryland horse breeding.

She bought and sold real estate in the 1940s and 1950s from a Towson office.

Family members said she became interested in Fells Point in 1965 while on a pilot boat for a birthday party she had arranged for her 5-year-old grandson. As they toured the harbor, she saw a grouping of old rowhouses along Thames Street at the foot of Broadway.

"The next day she and my uncle went down and they each bought a house," said her daughter, Sally Fisher Carpenter of Barrington, R.I. "In politics, she was also ahead of her time. She believed naturally in women's rights, the Democratic Party and in racial equality."

She and her brother, Kirk LeMoyne Billings, a close friend and schoolmate of President John F. Kennedy, purchased homes on Thames Street, as well as others on Bond. They were both aware the city was planning a highway through the area. She was admired for her preservation efforts because she put her money where her mouth was.

"She was a true preservationist," said former state Sen. Julian L. "Jack" Lapides. "Many thought she was a grande dame, a wealthy socialite who was dabbling. They were wrong. She was an extremely creative person who had a genuine love of architecture."

In 1966, as part of her early efforts to show off what could be lost, she wrote a letter to The Baltimore Sun: "Baltimore, born on the harbor, should make the most of its colorful past. Perhaps no other town on the eastern seaboard boasts Eighteenth Century houses facing the water such as we have here in Fells Point. … Here people could enjoy a village atmosphere of old Baltimore and visit the same houses, utilized for shops and restaurants, which were built by the early shipbuilders who made the Baltimore clipper famous the world round."

In May 1967, the City Council passed an ordinance allowing construction of the federally funded highway, known as the East-West Expressway.

"Try to imagine the present Inner Harbor ringed by wide, raised ramps of interstate highway with spaghetti-like interchanges. Imagine it spanned by a huge bridge cutting across and slicing through Federal Hill, cutting off the harbor from the rest of town," she wrote in a 1992 essay in The Sun. "There would be no Harborplace, no famous and popular National Aquarium, no promenade or any of the waterfront pleasures enjoyed by Baltimoreans and tourists."

In her essay, she said that in 1968, a small group of determined, dedicated citizens had been gathering "momentum and anger" over the impending loss of Federal Hill and Fells Point.

She recalled that the organizational first meeting of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill, Montgomery Street and Fells Point was held on the second floor of a building on Thames Street. It attracted 23 people. Mrs. Fisher was its first president.

"Lu Fisher was a live wire, a dynamo," said Robert Eney, a friend and early Fells Point activist.

Mrs. Fisher said the new society set out to use "whatever means could be found to carry out its first purpose — to publicize the plight of the area." She participated in the first Fells Point Fun Festival to draw a crowd to the neighborhood.

Finally, the society sued the federal government for funding an interstate highway through a designated historic site.

"There had been a roaring battle in the City Council about the highway," said Judge Ward. "She became enamored of the fight. We met at lunch at the Belvedere and formed a group. Lu and I went shopping for a lawyer."

Mrs. Fisher also wrote two children's books, "Two Monsters: A Fable" and "The Butterfly and The Stone." She remained interested in real estate investments and purchased homes and land on the west coast of Florida, in Worthington Valley and in Rhode Island.

"She had a great eye for property," said her daughter.

In 1998, she donated a waterfront Thames Street merchant's house that she owned for part of a visitors' center.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Dec. 11 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Towson, 1710 Dulaney Valley Road, where she was a founder.

In addition to her daughter, survivors include two sons, Alexander M. "Sandy" Fisher of Manakin-Sabot, Va., and Daniel B. Fisher of Cambridge, Mass.; another daughter, Lark Fisher of Baltimore; seven grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. Her husband of 49 years died in 1982.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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