Mount Vernon

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"A walk down Charles Street on a fine autumn afternoon is still a romantic and stimulating event. To these old eyes the girls are ever pretty, and the shops are ever charming, and the gaunt monument to the northward is ever a thing of beauty. This is my home, my stomping ground, my roost. Here I can stretch my legs and feel at ease." -- H.L. Mencken

Since the 19th century, Mount Vernon has been a top destination for intellectual and cultural stimulation within the city. Located a few blocks from the financial district and 10 blocks from the Inner Harbor, residents and visitors seek solace in its gardens, fountains, fine architecture and museums.

The Walters Art Museum helps make Mount Vernon Baltimore's Cultural Center. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

The neighborhood is the cultural center of Baltimore, evident by The Walters Art Museum, CENTERSTAGE and the Peabody Institute. Women compete in spring hat contests at the Flower Mart. Bands play to summertime crowds on 1st Thursdays, when museums open for free and galleries serve wine and cheese. The City That Reads comes out in full force for The Baltimore Book Festival each September. As the winter holiday season approaches, the city lights the Washington Monument with decorative fanfare second only to Hampden's 36th Street.

Mount Vernon has attracted Hollywood crews and luminaries from around the globe. Francis Scott Key died here. F. Scott Fitzgerald drank here. Mother Teresa prayed here. When Key had pneumonia, his daughter Lizzie took care of him at her mansion until his death. Lizzie was one of Mount Vernon's first residents; her father-in-law was Colonel John Eager Howard, a Revolutionary War hero, Maryland governor and U.S. senator who owned the land that is now Mount Vernon. The 700-acre property was then called Howard's Woods.

When the citizens of Baltimore wanted to build a monument for George Washington, Howard donated land from his woods as a tribute site. He died one year before its completion in 1829. After the public gardens were finished in 1931, Howard's family divided the woods surrounding the monuments into lots. The new development was named Mount Vernon. Lots were purchased by wealthy residents who wanted to escape the heat and pollution of the city. They built mansions, attended important meetings and held society balls. Charles Howard, the son of John Eager Howard, built the first mansion with a view of the monument.

A monumental tour

It's a winding trip up 228 narrow steps to the top of the Washington Monument, but the views are worth it. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Start your tour at the Washington Monument. Designed by Robert Mills -- the same architect who later built the Washington Monument in D.C. -- it was the first monument dedicated to George Washington. Energetic visitors can climb the 228 winding steps for great views of the city.

After you descend the monument's narrow staircase, you may be interested in exploring more of the neighborhood's architecture. To see a Mount Vernon mansion, visit the Hackerman House, now a part of the Walters Art Museum. The house features an impressive collection of Asian art and has a spectacular view of the monument and surrounding gardens.

Another house not to be missed is the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion, owned by the Engineering Society of Baltimore. This 40-room mansion was once the place for elite parties hosted by socialite Mary Frick Garrett Jacobs, who married the heir to the B&O Railroad fortune. Now, the mansion hosts a variety of soirees, including wedding receptions and private parties. Brad Pitt dangled Bruce Willis over the railing of its spiral staircase in "12 Monkeys." Scenes from "Accidental Tourist," "Diner," "Her Alibi," "Clara's Heart" and "The Bedroom Window" were also filmed here. Tours are by appointment only and require a group larger than 10.

With five tiers of carefully preserved books that rise to the skylight above a black-and-white tiled floor, the George Peabody Library combines the serenity of a great cathedral with the style of an M.C. Escher drawing. When you enter the library, you get the impression you are in a place of worship, reverence and great beauty. H.L. Mencken often reserved a table here, as the library is open to the public.

A statue of George Peabody, the namesake of the cathedral-like library that was a favorite of H.L. Mencken. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Mencken, one of Baltimore's most famous writers, lived for five years in an apartment on Cathedral Street, near the library. Along with frequenting The Owl Bar in the Belvedere Hotel, Mencken joined F. Scott Fitzgerald at the "Peabody Book Shop and Beer Stube," once located at 913 N. Charles Street.

Walking along Charles Street, you'll find a large selection of ethnic restaurants ranging from Nepalese to Japanese. The Helmand, an Afghani restaurant known for its baby pumpkin appetizer, is one of Baltimore's best. Menu items are inexpensive and the service, food and wine list are top-notch. Thairish, a restaurant with a counter and a few tables, is a unique place to quickly grab no-fuss Thai food. If you're in the mood for American food, Sascha's offers fulfilling sandwiches and gourmet cafe fare. For upscale dining, The Brass Elephant is a Baltimore tradition.

The Brewer's Art and Red Maple are two of the best places to share a drink with friends. Go to The Brewer's Art for a "Resurrection Ale" microbrew made on the premises. If you prefer a "Heavenly" martini, go to the Red Maple. Another popular neighborhood hangout is the Midtown Yacht Club. You can drink a domestic beer, play darts and drop your peanut shells on the first floor, then go upstairs to The Spy Club to enjoy contemporary art and good wine.

In addition to drinks, you get a great view of the city from the 13th floor of the Belvedere Hotel. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Mount Vernon also offers great dancing. The Hippo and Grand Central, both gay bars and dance clubs, are good choices. The 13th Floor in the Belvedere Hotel attracts a diverse adult crowd with live bands and panoramic views of the city.

Along with restaurants and nightclubs, Charles Street boasts some of the best and most diverse shopping in Baltimore. Although many of the boutiques are pricey, it's still an adventure to explore what's new and what's not. The Zone is the best place to buy reasonably priced vintage clothes. Nouveau and Meredith Gallery have impressive collections of modern furniture. An Die Musik specializes in classical and jazz CDs. The Craig Flinner Gallery has original vintage prints and paintings from Baltimore and around the country. C. Grimaldis is a smaller gallery with select contemporary paintings.

Nouveau sets up displays of its furniture, like with this green chair, to give customers ideas. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Although you could spend an entire day and night on Charles Street and Mount Vernon Square, there's plenty to see and do only a few streets away. The Maryland Historical Society has the original manuscript of "The Star Spangled Banner." CENTERSTAGE, Maryland's State Theater, attracts award-winning performers and offers six different plays a year. The Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center features concerts and sponsors an annual Billie Holiday competition. The Enoch Pratt Free Library has a large selection of Baltimore documentaries in its video collection. The library's Maryland Room is a good place to find obscure books about the state. Across from the library is the nation's first metropolitan Catholic cathedral, The Basilica of the Assumption, which Mother Teresa visited in 1996.

Mount Vernon's strong sense of history has helped create a culturally diverse neighborhood. With contemporary plays, fine art, classical and jazz concerts and 1st Thursday events, there is an activity to satisfy most interests. It may be difficult to do it all in one day, but the neighborhood will make you want to keep coming back to appreciate all it has to offer.