Richard D. Pickens, owner of a Crofton interior design firm who lived in Union Square, where he served as president of the Friends of the H.L. Mencken House, died Tuesday of stomach cancer at Anne Arundel Medical Center.
He was 50.
"I was dumbfounded when I got the news about Richard's death. It was like a bolt out of the blue," said Harry R. Lord, a retired partner in the Baltimore law firm of Piper & Marbury.
"Richard was really the lifeblood of the Mencken House for all these years. He had the respect of everyone who was concerned with the building. He had the trust of everyone," said Mr. Lord, who is head of the Society to Preserve H.L. Mencken's Legacy, a nonprofit that is attempting to work with the city and raise funds for the restoration of the fabled newspaperman's home at 1524 Hollins St., in Southwest Baltimore.
"No task was too big or small for him to take on. He was a remarkable human being who was an expert when it came to the restoration of old houses, so he was made for this job," said Mr. Lord. "He was the sweetest, most generous and undemanding guy."
"Richard Pickens was the driving force behind the saving of the Mencken House. The only reason he kept going at it was because he could see the tremendous potential for the Mencken House Museum," said Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, a Mencken scholar, author of "Mencken: The American Iconoclast," and editor of "Mencken and Sara: A Life in Letters."
"His death is tremendously shocking. No one knew he had cancer. He was the type of person who put himself last, and did not bother anyone. That is the tragedy of it," said Ms. Rodgers.
Richard Dee Pickens was born in Huntington, W.Va., and raised in Nashua, N.H., where he graduated from in 1982 from Nashua High School.
It was during his college years at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, from which he graduated in 1986, that he fell under the spell of Mr. Mencken's work.
Mr. Pickens was the recipient of a Guggenheim Studentship for the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy.
He worked in Washington as an investigator for court-appointed attorneys, and later was a registrar and exhibitor relations coordinator for the Smithsonian Institution. He also did a stint in Chicago working for Crate & Barrel.
For the past 14 years, he had been the owner of MGP Interiors LLC, an interior design company based in Crofton.
As a design consultant, Mr. Pickens had clients that included the White House and numerous law firms, embassies, museums and private residences.
The longtime Union Square resident had been director of historic preservation for the Union Square Association.
Mr. Pickens' home was directly across the square from Mr. Mencken's home.
"He was one of the people who we gave a key to the house. He kept an eye on it and wanted to know what was going on there," said Mr. Lord. "And the Friends did a splendid job of keeping the place from not falling in on itself."
In an April op-ed page piece in The Baltimore Sun, Mr. Pickens called attention to the 15 years of accumulated neglect that befell the Mencken House after the City Life Museums, which had operated and cared for the house, collapsed into bankruptcy in 1997.
"While unoccupied and unwatched, termites attacked the under flooring on the main level. This destruction has been abated. Additionally, the air conditioning units malfunctioned, causing severe water damage to the interior walls and buckling the hardwood floors," he wrote.
There was hope, he wrote. Initial funding was in place to start renovations, and a $3 million endowment ensured financial stability for the historic home.
"We must not overlook the extraordinariness of Baltimore's collective backyard," he wrote. "We must save the Mencken House — and all of Baltimore's important history."
Christopher Corbett is a Baltimore writer who teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"I got to know Richard because UMBC had reached out to the Friends of the Mencken House, and if anything needed help, it was the Mencken House," said Mr. Corbett, who added, "His death is a terrible loss for the House."
Mr. Corbett said not only was "he was a driving force down there — he'd do anything for the house — he was an incurable optimist when it came to the Mencken House, and it required it."
Mr. Pickens was also the secretary-treasurer of the Society to Preserve H. L. Mencken's Legacy.
"We agreed to merge the Society and the Friends after the first of the year, and we would most likely simplify the name to the Mencken House Trust," said Mr. Lord, who in his capacity as chairman would focus on fundraising and financial matters surrounding the house.
"Richard would have been president of the operating group that would oversee the construction of the house and its operation after it reopens. He had the confidence of both groups," he said. "It would have essentially been Richard's baby."
"As president of the Friends of the Mencken House, he had instigated and organized many successful events and programs. He was making things happen with the Mencken House," said Ms. Rodgers. "As a person, he was modest, almost to a fault; witty and easy to be with, and had a wonderful sense of humor. He was also a dear friend; to know him was to love him."
Mr. Lord said that in the near future an event will be held to honor Mr. Pickens' life and devotion to the restoration of Mr. Mencken's home, where the newspaperman had lived most of his life and where he died in 1956.
"Richard was greatly beloved," said Mr. Lord.
Mr. Pickens enjoyed riding his bike, traveling and collecting books.
A gathering celebrating Mr. Pickens' life will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday at the George P. Kalas Funeral Home, 2973 Solomons Island Road, Edgewater.
Surviving are his parents, Richard and Babette Pickens of Crofton; a brother, Robert Scott Pickens of Crofton; and several aunts and uncles.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun