Mount Washington

Mount Washington is a great place to visit when you really need to get a break from the more hectic aspects of Charm City. Baltimore's northernmost neighborhood was established in 1854 for just that purpose -- as a weekend retreat for the well-to-do to escape the sweltering city summers.

Welcome: Mount Washington beckons to potential visitors. (Photo by Emily Deutschman, Special to SunSpot)

George Gelbach Jr., a developer, promoted the new 300-acre community near the intersection of the Western Run and the Jones Falls as a rural resort for wealthy Baltimore professionals. Gelbach painted a fanciful picture of "Mount Washington" in his sales brochure. The idyllic community was to include waterfalls, promenades, carriage drives and fountains. These features, unfortunately, were largely fictitious. One of Mount Washington's legitimate selling points, however, was that residents could travel the five miles to downtown Baltimore by train (the Baltimore and Susquehanna Railroad had been laid through the area by 1830) in 15 minutes for a mere 10 cents.

From its very beginning, the residents of Mount Washington were educated, organized, socially active and civic-minded. Part of Gelbach's plan for the community was to incorporate a female college, a very progressive idea for its time. The college opened in 1856, but was a financial failure and sold in 1860. After several ownerships, the college was purchased by the Sisters of Mercy in 1867, who renamed it Mount Saint Agnes. It taught girls from first grade through college and boys from grades one through eight. In 1958 the boys' school moved across the city line to Smith Avenue and was renamed the Mount Washington Country School for Boys. The lower grades of the girls school were phased out, and the upper grades were combined with Loyola and relocated.

The Mount Washingtonians were ahead of their time in other ways, too. They even printed and distributed their own community newspaper, The Advocate, in the late 1800s. The Advocate's regular features were letters to the editor and reports from the hotels during the summer season. By 1884, the Mount Washingtonians had even built their own community hall, "the Casino," where they held dances, art exhibits, plays and other social gatherings, but did not gamble.

Jones Falls: The falls were one attraction for early residents to Mount Washington. (Photo by Emily Deutschman, Special to SunSpot)

Mount Washington's male residents even had their own organization, the FFF club (the FFF ostensibly stands for "First Forty Families"), whose membership was limited to fathers or sons from the first 40 homeowners in the area. The group was founded in the early 1890s and included among its goals -- spelled out in its constitution -- promoting "greater sociability among residents of the village" and organizing residents to promote the community's welfare.

Social clubs weren't the only source of entertainment. Athletics were also a big part of Mount Washington community life. The Baltimore Cricket Club was formed in Mount Washington in 1874. It sponsored matches between Baltimore's gentlemen elite and nearby (as well as foreign) competitors. Historians report that travelers could watch cricket matches from the train as they were coming and going from town. But cricket was hardly the area's only sport.

Around 1904, a group of players who had attended Johns Hopkins University formed the Mount Washington Club lacrosse team. This neighborhood team had a rivalry against the Crescents, a team from Long Island, whom they beat in 1906 to become the renowned lacrosse champions.

Kelly Bridge: This bridge provides a quaint gateway to the neighborhood. (Photo by Emily Deutschman, Special to SunSpot)

Mount Washington always attracted upper class and affluent residents (including H.L Mencken, who stayed there in his youth with his family).

The neighborhood continues to be an upper-middle-class community, in an intellectual-liberal quiet wealth kind of way. It is home to a diverse, multicultural assortment of residents, including a large Jewish population.

Today, there are about 1,600 households in Mount Washington. The housing styles range from condos and saltbox to ranchers, Victorians and Georgians. No one style of architecture dominates because families bought plots of land for getaway houses and often built retreats to suit their individual (and sometimes unusual) tastes. Locals describe Mount Washington's architecture as truly eclectic.

Sulgrave Avenue: Cute shops and restaurants are common in Mount Washington. (Photo by Emily Deutschman, Special to SunSpot)

As is the case with many other neighborhoods in Baltimore, some families move to Mount Washington and never leave, so it's not unusual to find second- or third-generation Mount Washingtonians. One reason is the community's neighborhood association, the Mount Washington Improvement Association, which has been active since 1885 and has about 600 members.

Another reason is the Mount Washington Village, located in the eastern section of the neighborhood. The Village is, and has been, the area's main drag for shopping, eating and hanging out for a number of years. Along with restaurants, beauty salons and corner stores, the area has a number of boutiques. For high end, second-hand women's fashions at reasonable prices, visit Just a Second Boutique. The shop has a full range of sizes (extra small to full figure) and styles and premium accessories, like handbags from Saks and Ferragamo pumps. You could easily put together a special outfit for less than a $100.

For a more exotic, bohemian look, try Something Else. It's the kind of place Stevie Nicks might have shopped in during her earth mother stage. A lot of the clothing is made of natural fibers and loose-fitting, gauzy ensembles are available in every (muted) color of the rainbow. The store also sells scarves, hats and an exciting assortment of folk art and puppets.

Once you've got your clothes, you'll need accessories. Mount Washington is the funky jewelry capital of the city. You can't find a neighborhood in Baltimore with more custom-made jewelry per square foot.

The OXOXO Gallery is stocked floor to ceiling with earrings, studs, chokers, bracelets and necklaces all handcrafted by artists. If your taste in jewelry runs to pearls and studs, you'd better skip this place. But if you're into the modern Nefertiti look by way of nuts and bolts, you've hit pay dirt.

Jewelry's not the only artsy stuff around the Village. No visit to Mount Washington would be complete without a trip to the Baltimore Clayworks, a non-profit ceramic arts center. You can buy ready-made pottery for very reasonable prices, or take classes at the center and make some of your own. The Clayworks even has classes for children.

On the other side of the Jones Falls is the Mount Washington Mill Business Center, a historic mill center that has evolved into a retail complex. It is anchored by Whole Foods, a premium whole foods supermarket that specializes in organic produce. Whole Foods has it all, the exotic and beautiful, the wholesome and free range, all raised under the safest conditions. Bring a few extra bucks if you want to take home some of those wholesome foods, though. The pesticide-free products will cost you at this upscale-shopping mecca.

Whole Foods: High-quality produce and organic items can be had -- for a price. (Photo by Emily Deutschman, Special to SunSpot)

Whole Foods is not exactly a back-to-nature health food store, so don't be shocked by the $4 loaves of bread or $1 pieces of fruit. Still, it's worth it to stroll through the market and nibble some fancy cheeses, artisan breads or exotic fruits and vegetables from the numerous free sample trays. And don't gripe about the prices too much, because if you need a handful of enoki mushrooms or some organically grown habanero peppers for a recipe, Whole Foods just might be the only place in town with such offerings.

If you have a few dollars left after shopping at Whole Foods and need a little pick-me-up, walk on over to the nearby Starbucks Coffee, also in the center, and have a cup of joe or a frozen coffee drink on the patio as you do some people-watching.

You'll get an eyeful looking at the folks shopping next door at Smith & Hawken, a yuppie gardening store. Smith & Hawken sells strangely beautiful gardening tools and accessories. It's the kind of place where you'd expect to find Martha Stewart in a pair of pink garden clogs with a $100 shovel in each hand.

After you've shopped, nibbled and looked for (or hidden from) Martha, go back to the village for some interesting food and drink. A good bet for casual dining is The Desert Cafe, where you can find reasonable and tasty Mediterranean-influenced foods such as tabouleh, falafel and hummus, along with meaty kabobs, desserts and cool drinks. The porch is a perfect place to watch fellow shoppers stroll along the sidewalk while you enjoy the fresh air.

Mt. Washington Tavern: Sit back and have a drink at this popular bar. (Photo by Emily Deutschman, Special to SunSpot)

If you're in Mount Washington later in the evening -- or you just want to get a beer during the day -- check out the legendary Mt. Washington Tavern, a watering hole for both the area's young-ish and mature drinkers. The Tavern, built around 1890, was once a general store, as is evident by the layout of the bar. It's wood interior has a dad's club basement feel to it, complete with shuffleboard. The Tavern's full menu ranges from burgers to complete dinners with many seafood options. It also boasts unusually generous happy-hour specials, including free blue point oysters on Thursdays and free shrimp on Fridays, both from 5-7 p.m.

Moms and dads think Mount Washington is an ideal place to raise kids, because the public schools are top-notch, and they receive strong community support. The Northwest Family Sports Center is also great for families. It offers all kinds of skating lessons and services, as well as open skating, year around.

Singles and young couples like the area because it's near downtown, but not too far from the county. Mount Washington even has a driving range open to the public, plus private swim clubs, a country club and gyms. And, of course, there's Mount Washington's easy access to the Light Rail, an attractive feature most residents of other Baltimore neighborhoods envy.

Lifelong residents say that Mount Washington has held its own over the years. When other city neighborhoods bent and buckled under the urban decay and political turmoil of the '60s and '70s, Mount Washington remained pretty much intact. It's still progressive and moderately affluent.

It continues to attract residents with intellectual capital and a strong sense of community. And it's still a haven for urbanites who want a bit of breathing room. Mount Washington hasn't changed very much over the years -- and it probably won't -- not if its longtime residents have any say in the matter.