By Richard Pickens
11:58 AM EDT, April 30, 2012
Despite what you may have heard, the "house museum" is not dead in Baltimore City.
The H.L. Mencken House (officially closed since 1997 by the bankruptcy of the City Life Museums) has had more than 100 visitors during two recent weekends. The Johns Hopkins University's Odyssey program arranged three tours of the house led by Marion Rodgers, the Mencken scholar and biographer. There was such pent-up demand to see the "empty" house that an additional tour was added, with another waiting list group that was unable to be accommodated. These tourists were from Baltimore, the Maryland suburbs, Norway and the Netherlands. This month, more than 50 people attended a book signing and open house for "Bodine's City," a collection of the photography work of longtime Baltimore Sun photographer A. Aubrey Bodine. Most attendees were first-time visitors to the Mencken House. And, in the last few weeks, the nearby and struggling Poe House has had nearly 300 visitors.
Contrary to museum consultants' claims, the public has a continuing fascination with the homes of famous citizens, in Baltimore and elsewhere. The James Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio, and the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Conn., are two shining examples of highly attended writers' house museums. The public's interest exhibited in recent weeks shows that the home of H.L. Mencken could be another example of that success.
The history of Baltimore is seen through its unique sights. As the city of Baltimore appraises and decides the disposition of its historic properties, it should remember that part of their value is tourism dollars and their significant cultural heritage to the Baltimore and all of Maryland. The West Baltimore neighborhood surrounding the Mencken House has numerous sights to intrigue visitors, including the Irish Shrine Museum, the B&O Roundhouse (aka the railroad museum) Mount Clare Mansion in Carroll Park, the Hollins Market (Baltimore's first public market, still operating), the Edgar Allan Poe House, and the Enoch Pratt "old No. 2" Library — the library branch that H.L. Mencken cited as a major influence on his education. These locations are cornerstones of Baltimore's past. Visiting them enriches a tourist's experience and showcases our city's important history.
The city-owned H.L. Mencken House suffers from more than 15 years of benign neglect. 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 to the hardwood floors. For better than a decade, the Friends of the H.L. Mencken House and its sister group, the Society to Preserve H.L. Mencken's Legacy, have been patiently negotiating with Baltimore City to obtain a house transfer agreement. During this prolonged process, the Friends have become volunteer watchdogs of the house, acting as its unofficial caretaker.
These two groups established to preserve the H.L. Mencken House are working together and are eagerly waiting to begin the renaissance of this historic house. The initial funding is in place to start the house renovations, along with a major bequest of nearly $3 million for the house's endowment. The approved business plan and architectural plans for restoration have been prepared. All the furnishings and house artifacts are in safe storage at the Maryland Historical Society, awaiting return to the restored house.
When the H.L. Mencken House is able to reopen, it will be a museum and writers center. The Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland and Goucher College are all strong supporters of the project. This will be another special asset for Baltimore. This historic house, along with other historic properties of Baltimore, adds to and strengthens our cultural, educational and tourist economy.
We must not overlook the extraordinariness of Baltimore's collective backyard. We must save the Mencken House — and all of Baltimore's important history.
Richard Pickens is president of the Friends of the H.L. Mencken House. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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