Thirty years before World War I, writer Henry James took a carriage ride through Baltimore's Bolton Hill neighborhood. After emerging from , James described his first impressions of the area, comparing the tree-lined residential streets to quiet old ladies "seated with their toes tucked upon uniform footstools, under the shaded candlesticks of old-fashioned tea parties."
Many who live there would agree that James said it best.
Step by step: Bolton Hill provides lovely scenery and historic homes. (Photo by Rachael Golden, Special to SunSpot)
Located in the heart of Baltimore City, Bolton Hill has served as an oasis from the hectic pace of city living for nearly 150 years. City dwellers and suburbanites have ventured into Bolton Hill to enjoy Baltimore's annual Artscape festival (in July) and to develop their artistic talents at the . When the crowds clear, however, the neighborhood remains a breath of fresh air -- which is how it began in 1850.
Major development in Bolton Hill occurred between 1850 and 1900, as wealthy families seeking to escape the more developed areas of the city sought refuge in the country-like setting. It received the name "Bolton Hill" from the Bolton Mansion, home to Baltimore merchant Thomas Grundy, who first settled there. Two other mansions -- Rose Hill and Mount Royal -- were later erected, and massive rowhouse construction followed. Although most of the older buildings in the neighborhood have fallen victim to urban renewal, two original structures remain. One, the Family and Children Services of Central Maryland, is located at 204 W. Lanvale St. The other original building can be found at 232 W. Lanvale St.
The neighborhood's first place of worship, , was erected between 1861 and 1864 and was modeled after an English country church. German Jews also settled in the area, establishing Temple Oheb Shalom and Har Sinai Congregation. Both synagogues later relocated to Park Heights Avenue, but their presence lingers behind. A Masonic lodge now meets at the Temple Oheb Shalom building. The Cornerstone Baptist Church moved into Har Sinai's building, but was destroyed by fire in 1969. The on Bolton Street was later built on the site, and has since become a meeting place for elderly women who live nearby. Residents have begun cultivating a rose garden in the park.
Literary great: The F. Scott Fitzgerald Park is named for the famed author who spent a tumultuous time in Baltimore before moving to California. (Photo by Rachael Golden, Special to SunSpot)
Fitzgerald lived in a rowhouse on the 1300 block of Park Avenue with his wife, Zelda, and their young daughter. He reportedly penned "Tender is the Night" while living there, and suffered the emotional breakdown detailed in "The Crack-Up," as he struggled with Zelda's mental illness, alcoholism and the challenge of raising a child virtually alone. When the writer relocated to Hollywood, he left behind his tumultuous relationship with Zelda. The house the couple shared in Bolton Hill is the last place they ever lived together. Today, to maintain their privacy, its current residents have not opened the literary landmark to public view and the home's facade is devoid of any markings that would indicate its history.
A few years before Fitzgerald moved to the neighborhood, Ottmor Mergenthaler resided at 159 W. Lanvale St. Now known as the Mergenthaler House, the building served as Mergenthaler's home -- and maybe his source of inspiration -- when he patented the Linotype. The famous classicist Edith Hamilton lived at 1302 Park Ave., across the street from the house once occupied by Fitzgerald, and former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson lived at 1208 Eutaw Place while he attended .
Many of Bolton Hill's ornamental rowhouses were destroyed to make way for the Jones Falls Expressway in the 1960s. Most notable among them were the historic rowhouses on the east side of Mount Royal Avenue. In 1978, a fire ravaged a section of the historic Beethoven Apartments building (built in 1864, it still exists), forcing residents to leave the neighborhood for Charles Village, Mount Washington and other areas. Most of those residents did not return. Current residents say the numerous gardens and parks that have survived in the area and a 1960s movement for historical preservation saved the neighborhood from decline. In 1969, Bolton Hill became a historic district, and in 1971 it joined the National Register of Historic Places.
Regional historian Frank Shivers likes to take his early morning stroll through the neighborhood where he has spent nearly 50 years of his life. Shivers, who has written various books on the Chesapeake Bay region, published "Bolton Hill" in 1978 -- the year of the apartment fire. Although he also teaches a literature course at Johns Hopkins University and a writing course at , Shivers has acquired an historical expertise on Bolton Hill. The neighborhood's resemblance to Philadelphia's Victorian neighborhoods -- which Shivers once lived near -- attracted him to the area almost half a century ago, he said.
From the ashes: Part of the Beethoven Apartments were destroyed in a fire, but the section was fixed and the building remains one of the more beautiful in Bolton Hill. (Photo by Rachael Golden, Special to SunSpot)
This comparison seems almost fitting -- other historians have likened Bolton Hill to Washington D.C.'s Georgetown, Boston's Beacon Hill and New York City's Brooklyn Heights. The common theme in all of the neighborhoods is the urban 19th century architecture. In addition to grandiose bay windows, Bolton Hill's red brick rowhouses feature one of the city's famous architectural nuances -- pristine white marble steps. Backyard lots have large one-car garages. Shivers notes that Bolton Hill's unique identity manifests strongly in the gardens and sculptures.
"It's part of a movement in other cities," Shivers says, "to bring a little part of nature into the densely settled parts of the city."
As the author of "Walking in Baltimore," Shivers knows the ins and outs of the neighborhood. There's the , a small hole-in-the-wall place to buy coffee. There's the Park Avenue Pharmacy for everyday conveniences. There's , the spot for a quick getaway. The local flower shop, , has answered the neighborhood's gardening needs for more than 20 years (previously by a different name). And the Bolton Swim & Tennis Club, attracts young families to the neighborhood.
Hole: Mr. Mole's Bed and Breakfast is a quiet retreat for those who want to get away from it all. (Photo by Rachael Golden, Special to SunSpot)
But there are also places that serve as the perfect destination for a short stroll. The restored Francis Scott Key Monument, designed in 1911 by French sculptor Jean Marius Antonin Mercie, stands on Eutaw Place as a patronage to the War of 1812. Stone lions, which once adorned the Calvert Street Bridge, occupy a residential park in the Park Purchase townhouse development. The Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Mount Royal Avenue is reminiscent of the city's haunting Confederate past. After the Civil War, many Confederates moved to Bolton Hill -- although Baltimore remained neutral territory in the Civil War -- giving the neighborhood a Southern disposition. Through the 1950s the United Daughters of the Confederacy met in Bolton Hill.
These days, the reaction to the neighborhood has not changed much. Despite safety concerns and the neighborhood's proximity to high-crime areas, newcomers to town, or those looking for a change of pace, make Bolton Hill their home. The Mount Royal Improvement Association patrols the neighborhood, and Baltimore City Police note that 22 murders occurred in Central Baltimore -- where Bolton Hill is located -- between January and September 1999. There were 209 murders during the same nine-month period in the city of Baltimore, according to police. As Shivers says, "Many people don't think about it as an inner-city neighborhood. There's always housing for teachers, musicians and a slew of architects."