A house with a long history

For The Baltimore Sun
A house that has stood in Baltimore for 250 years.

The decorative brickwork fronting an old 21/2-story house on Fells Point's South Ann Street has a shimmer in its pattern, and its architectural style doesn't quite match that of nearby buildings.

But a generation ago, the now-restored house was dilapidated, its brick coated with an asphalt-like material. That's when Bob Eney, an aficionado of old buildings since childhood, took a closer look at the house around the corner from his at the behest of the Preservation Society of Federal Hill and Fell's Point.

"I thought, 'Wow, is that fantastic,' " he recalled.

Outside, Eney saw signs that it once had a pent roof — a mini-roof above the first-floor windows that protects the lower part of a house from the elements, an unremarkable feature of old homes usually built just north of Maryland. He also noted that the sloping attic had been stretched into a full third floor. And beneath the strange coating, it was really brick. Inside, despite modifications, he recognized the layout.

"I said, 'This is a Pennsylvania house,'" Eney remembered.

What he identified as possibly a particularly historic house has since been named the Robert Long House, built by an up-and-coming merchant in 1765 and billed as the oldest known surviving urban residence in Baltimore's old city limits. (Construction of the Mount Clare mansion was begun earlier, but it was not in the city limits until later, and was not an urban dwelling of its time, according to a Maryland Historical Society Library article, leaving open the question of which is really the oldest home in Baltimore.)

This year, the house marks its 250th birthday. Free programs are scheduled and tours are being planned. A fundraiser to pay for it all is set for Jan. 22 and includes a walk through the first-floor of the house and a reception at the adjacent visitor scenter.

Laura and Tony Norris, who own the Fells Point restaurant-bar Bertha's, live four doors up from the Robert Long House in a 1799 house that they restored.

"We do have the odd person who knocks on the door and wants to know if this is the house, but I tell them we're not," said Laura Norris. However, if her house "is tidy, I'll let them in and show them around," she said.

While the Robert Long House may be small (it's 28 feet wide and just as deep), its significance to historic and neighborhood preservationists in Fells Point is immeasurable.

Kay Hogan, president of the Preservation Society, said the house is a reminder of saving a storied community and encouraging historic preservation there. She said she views it as a reflection of the changes that took place from Colonial through current times in the country as a whole.

"Those are the changes that Fells Point went through, to some extent," she said.

For about 16 years, this was the house of a businessman in a thriving seaport. With the addition of a third story, it evolved to reflect the changes of the 1800s, including accommodating a growing immigrant population.

In the 1900s, again reflecting Fells Point's changes, its owners and uses included the Patapsco Ship Ceiling and Stevedore Co. With manufacturing fading after World War II, a political club took up residence there. The community was in decline, but in a few decades was on the upswing.

The house was restored by the Preservation Society during the late 1970s and early 1980s to represent Robert Long's time. The cost has been estimated at close to $900,000 in private and public funds. It joined the city's list of landmarks in 1986, according to city planners.

The Preservation Society and others had mobilized starting in the 1960s, when they sued to block plans for an extension of Interstate 83 through their community and led a push to have Fells Point become the first historic district on the National Register of Historic Places from Maryland in 1969.

The group followed up by buying the Robert Long House in 1973 to restore it, a strategy to show that its community was historic and worth saving, said Geoffrey Mitchell, the attorney for preservationists who later headed the committee for the house.

With help from the city, which took ownership of the house for a time, the organization was able to restore the house.

"This is one of the best things I've ever been involved in," said Mitchell.

Mitchell said he believes that if not for the Preservation Society's lawsuit, a judge's decision to stop the city from amassing property for the interstate, and the creation of the historic district, not only would the house's past have remained unknown, but it probably would have been among buildings and Baltimore history lost to the highway. Some of the community efforts also involved a young politician, now-Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

"To my mind, this is a symbol of what's possible," Mitchell said.

Hogan said the drive spurred others to restore Fells Point buildings and helped revive the neighborhood.

The restoration reflects what studies of the house uncovered. The exterior's decorative brickwork has glazed headers that glisten. The building was cut to its original 21/2 stories. The pent roof is back. New windows are framed in a pale yellow and flanked with dark green shutters.

"It's a nice connection to how Fells Point originated," said Ann Gummerson, who has lived across South Ann Street from it with her husband since 1987.

"My office desk is at the front window, and I look at it every day. It's a very attractive house to look at visually," said Gummerson, an architectural photographer.

Little is known about Long, who is believed to have arrived from Pennsylvania in 1763 "to make his fortune" in the bustling seaport neighborhood. He bought property there from the Fell family and became a merchant, said architect David Gleason, who is heading the plans for the 250th anniversary programs. Two years later, the unmarried Long had enough money to complete a house probably nicer than most.

The first floor, which is open to the public, has rooms that are white above a chair rail, resembling whitewashing of plaster in Long's time, Gleason said. Using beadboard for some walls was a money-saver for Long, cheaper than the more labor-intensive plastering of other walls.

The colors below the chair rail and on beadboard and trim are blue in the "family room," where family activities would have taken place; yellow in the parlor, which is dominated by a corner cabinet; blue in the bedroom, where the centerpiece is a four-poster bed; and gray in the office. Each room has a fireplace. The donated furnishings represent the sort of furniture that Long may have had, he said.

The upstairs, which now houses the Preservation Society's offices, would have been more bedrooms, servants' quarters, storage and the like, Gleason said. The basement probably was the kitchen, he said.

"There are no fine finishes here," said Gleason, because it was a merchant's house.

Long is believed to have made and lost money — and then made money again — and in 1774 was wealthy enough to consider himself a "gentleman." He married twice and had four children.

"The thing about the Robert Long House is that it represents the rising middle class," Gleason said.

Within a decade of Long completing the house, "the whole political situation in the Colonies changes," Gleason said. Long's sympathies were clear in documents indicating that he offered to help the Continental army find food, horses and wagons. He bought confiscated Tory property, and in 1781, he sold his house on South Ann Street and moved to the Herring Run area in Baltimore County, where he owned property. Mentioned in his 1799 will was property in three counties in Virginia as well. He died in 1808.

Looking ahead, the Preservation Society, which owns the house, is considering another fundraiser at the end of the year for anticipated repairs and improvements, Hogan said. During an upstairs fire there in 1999, neighbors helped move the first-floor furniture out to ensure that it would not be incinerated. The building was repaired and the group wants to ensure it stays that way for generations to come.

Said Hogan: "You have to save your history if you want to know what the future is all about."

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Robert Long House

The Preservation Society is planning a fundraiser as well as a series of free programs during this year to mark the 250th anniversary of the Robert Long House. The fundraiser is 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Jan. 22 at 812 S. Ann St. Tickets are $100 per person. The programs are scheduled to begin March 26 at the Lucretia B. Fisher Visitor Center, 1724 Thames St., in Fells Point. For more information, go to preservationsociety.com.

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