Monday is Presidents’ Day, the holiday where we honor the 44 men who have been chosen to lead our country. For most of us, it’s little more than a day to enjoy lots of sales and, if you’re lucky, savor a day off from work or school. Fact is, the closest most people will come to a president will be handing over a few dollar bills to pay for a quick snack.
Happily, it doesn’t have to be that way, certainly not here in Baltimore. For one thing, we’re less than 50 miles from Washington, D.C., which is awash in all things presidential, from the house where all but one of them lived (that would be the White House, which only George Washington never occupied) to monuments honoring many of the greatest (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts) to a National Portrait Gallery in which their images are forever preserved.
But the Baltimore area is no slouch when it comes to being associated with the presidents. Many of the founding fathers visited Annapolis regularly and traveled through Baltimore on their way north to Philadelphia and New York. Political parties in the 19th century often had their conventions in Baltimore. Teddy Roosevelt made a campaign stop in Havre de Grace, and Woodrow Wilson was known to drive to Baltimore for relaxation.
So, in honor of Presidents’ Day, why not go where the presidents have gone? Here’s an assortment of places in and around Baltimore that have played host to a dozen presidents, some more intimately than others, but all genuine. Some are historic sites open for tours, some are plaques and monuments commemorating the past, some are street corners where prominent buildings once stood. All have had their brush with greatness, and will be happy to share any presidential vibes that remain.
1. George Washington
First president, 1789-1797
For Maryland fans of the father of our country, the experience of choice should be a trip to the state capitol in Annapolis (msa.maryland.gov). There, on Dec. 23, 1783 (Annapolis was the country’s de facto capital city at the time), inside the Old Senate Chamber, Washington voluntarily resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army — a nearly unprecedented act that helped ensure the power to govern this country would rest with the people, not the military.
In Baltimore, spend a moment at the northeast corner of Light* and Redwood streets, site of the Fountain Inn, opened in 1773 and for nearly a century among the city’s finest hotels. Washington lodged there in 1775, when he was on his way to Philadelphia and the Continental Congress; in 1781, on his way to Yorktown, Va., where he would accept the British surrender that ended the Revolution; in 1783, on his way to Annapolis to resign his commission; and in 1789, on his way to New York for his inauguration as president. The Fountain Inn was razed in 1871, to be replaced by the Carrolton Hotel and, in 1918, the Southern Hotel. The site is now home to the One Light Street tower.
Of course, you could just visit our Washington Monument, at Charles and Monument streets.
Sixth president, 1825-1829
Legend has it that our country’s sixth president gave Baltimore its nickname of The Monumental City. Well…
Truth is, John Quincy Adams did, while he was president, raise a toast to Baltimore during a visit here in 1827, proclaiming, “Baltimore — the monumental city — may the days of her safety be as prosperous and happy, as the days of her danger have been trying and triumphant."
But Baltimore had been referred to as “The Monumental City” at least as far back as 1823, when Washington, D.C., newspaper editor Joseph Gales Jr. used the nickname in print. (He was being sarcastic, criticizing our forebears for not supporting construction of what would become the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. Other newspapers soon picked it up, although most of them seemed to mean it as a compliment.)
Still, a presidential toast is a presidential toast, and J.Q. Adams’ words still sound good to our ears, even nearly two centuries later. He raised his glass during a celebratory banquet at Barnum’s Hotel, at the southwest corner of Fayette and Calvert streets. Built in 1825, it was torn down in 1889; the nine-story Equitable Building apartments now occupies the site.
3. James Buchanan
15th president, 1857-1861
He wasn’t one of our greatest presidents, usually ranked near the bottom, one of several pre-Civil War chief executives who failed to properly address the issue of slavery. But he lived not far away, about 80 miles from Baltimore in Lancaster, Pa. And his home — Wheatland (lancasterhistory.org), a Federal-style brick structure with 17 rooms, dating to 1828 — is a National Historic Site and open for tours. He’s also buried nearby, in Lancaster’s Woodward Hill Cemetery.
4. Abraham Lincoln
16th president, 1861-1865
There’s plenty of Lincoln history within easy driving distance, including the Lincoln Memorial and Ford’s Theatre (where he was assassinated) in Washington, D.C., as well as the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa., where he once gave a famous address you might have read about.
But for some strictly local flavor, pay a visit to either (or both) President Street Station, 601 S. President St., and Camden Station, 301 W. Camden St. In February 1861, President-elect Lincoln was on his way to Washington for his inaugural when agents assigned to protect him got wind of a possible assassination plot; rather than risk Lincoln’s safety, they persuaded him to travel through the city under cover of night, contrary to previously announced plans.
So, on the evening of Feb. 22, Lincoln’s train pulled into President Street Station and he was taken via carriage, in secrecy, across town to Camden Station, where he boarded another train for the last leg of his journey to Washington.
Lincoln’s hidden journey through Baltimore quickly became a source of embarrassment to the president, especially after many newspapers ridiculed the secrecy involved. “We do not believe the Presidency can ever be more degraded by any of his successors than it has by him, even before his inauguration," groused the Baltimore Sun.
Happily, both of these 19th-century train stations are still standing. President Street Station is home to the Baltimore Civil War Museum (baltimorecivilwarmuseum.com), while Camden Station, though vacant for the time being, continues to welcome visitors to the adjacent Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
(We should also note that Baltimore’s Front Street Theater, which fell victim to the great Baltimore Fire of 1804, played host to the 1864 presidential nominating convention where Lincoln was put up for a second term. But he never actually attended the gathering.)
5. William McKinley
25th president, 1897-1901
Ohioan McKinley, who would go on to become the third U.S. president felled by an assassin’s bullet (he was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz while delivering a speech in Buffalo, N.Y.), served as a commissary sergeant on the Union side at the Battle of Antietam during the Civil War. Two years after he was assassinated in 1901, a monument to McKinley was dedicated on the Washington County battlefield; its inscription praises him for “personally and without orders serv[ing] 'hot coffee' and 'warm food' to every man in the Regiment, on this spot and in doing so had to pass under fire."
The monument is located just south of the Burnside Bridge parking area. (nps.gov/anti)
6. Woodrow Wilson
28th president, 1913-1921
When the Democrats held their 1912 convention at the 5th Regiment Armory, on 29th Division Street, it took 46 ballots before they finally settled on New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson as their candidate. True, Wilson himself never showed up at the convention (it wasn’t until Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 that winning candidates started making an appearance), but the road to his presidency — one of the most consequential of the 20th century, given that he led the U.S. during World War I — began on this spot, right here in Baltimore.
(You actually get a two-for-one bonus here, as our 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) gave a TV address from the Fifth Regiment Armory on Oct. 31, 1958, urging people to vote Republican in the coming election.)
7. Warren Harding
29th president, 1921-1923
On June 14, 1922, Harding came to Fort McHenry (nps.gov/fomc) for the Flag Day dedication of a monument to Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The monument, a bronze statue of the Greek demi-god Orpheus, still stands on the grounds, to your right as you drive toward the visitor center.
During his oration, Harding praised Baltimore as “the one great Atlantic port over which no enemy flag has ever flown.” He exhorted Americans to “face the future with confidence,” according to the New York Times. And he praised Key, a Frederick lawyer remembered by history not for anything to do with the courts, but for his songwriting ability, for his “impassioned, anxious, self-sacrificing, exalting and exulting love of country.”
8. John F. Kennedy
35th president, 1961-1963
During the 1960 presidential campaign, the Massachusetts senator spent much of Sept. 16 in the Baltimore area, making speeches, raising money and drumming up enthusiasm for his candidacy.
The day included a speech and rally at Towson Plaza (a shopping center at what is now the site of the Towson Town Center mall, 825 Dulaney Valley Road). A crowd The Sun estimated at 3,500 heard JFK warn Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev not to interfere in the U.S. election.
“The American people are not going to to be influenced in this election by what the Kremlin does or does not say,” Kennedy promised the Soviet leader.
Later, Kennedy spoke at a $100-a-plate fundraising dinner at the Pikesville Armory, 610 Reisterstown Road. The dinner raised $165,000, Democratic party officials told The Sun.
9. Richard Nixon
37th president, 1969-1974
More than two decades before he was elected president, a fresh-out-of-the-Navy Richard Nixon lived for a few months in Middle River; following the end of World War II, he had been sent to work at nearby Glenn L. Martin Airport, where his skills as a lawyer were put to use settling contracts for airplanes and armaments the government no longer needed.
While he and his wife Pat were living in the Stansbury Manor apartments — at 900 Wilson Point Road, according to a 2008 story in The Sun — Nixon was approached by Republican party officials from his native California, who wanted him to run for Congress. It proved a hard sell, according to John A. Farrell’s 2017 biography of Nixon, but they succeeded.
How different history would have been if they hadn’t.
(There’s another Maryland connection to Nixon: his vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, was our state’s governor when he was nominated for the second spot on the Republican ticket. Agnew, who worked out of the Towson courthouse while serving as Baltimore County executive and out of the Annapolis statehouse while governor, resigned as vice president in October 1973; he died in 1996 at age 77 and is buried at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Cockeysville.)
10. Ronald Reagan
40th president, 1981-1989
The Gipper’s most memorable foray into Maryland probably came on May 22, 1985, when he gave the commencement speech at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Speaking from the field of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, 550 Taylor Ave., Reagan stressed the need for a strong military and defended his administration’s efforts to ensure just that.
''Your lives are precious,'' Reagan told the 1,032-member graduating class. ''You are putting yourselves in harm’s way for America’s sake, and I will do everything in my power to make certain the country gives you the tools and equipment you need to do your job and to come home safely.''
The president seemed to have a good time, and decided — apparently at the last minute — to shake hands with each graduate. No word on how swollen his hands were when it was all over.
11. Bill Clinton
42nd president, 1993-2001
Both Clinton and his vice president, Al Gore, were at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Sept, 6, 1996, when Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. set the major-league record for consecutive games played. Visiting the Orioles dugout beforehand, the president shared some video time with outfielder Bobby Bonilla. And Clinton was in the radio broadcast booth for the 4th inning, when Ripken hit a home run to mark the occasion. It was hard over the radio to tell who was more excited, Clinton or announcer Jon Miller.
(And that’s not the only presidential encounter Oriole Park has had. In the years while Washington didn’t have a major-league baseball team, both George H.W. Bush and Clinton threw out first pitches here in Baltimore. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan did the same thing at old Memorial Stadium; so did Richard Nixon in 1954, when he was vice president.)
12. Barack Obama
44th president, 2009-2017
On Feb. 3, 2016, Obama visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque, 6631 Johnnycake Road in Windsor Mill — his first official visit to a mosque as president. While there, he noted that Thomas Jefferson had cited the Muslim faith in his arguments for guaranteeing freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights.
“Thomas Jefferson’s opponents tried to stir things up by suggesting he was a Muslim, so I was not the first,” said Obama, a Christian who some people insisted was secretly a Muslim. “I’m in good company.”