To preserve or to demolish? Recent debates over the planned demolition of jazz legend Cab Calloway’s childhood home in Druid Heights have resurfaced an age-old question of what to do with historical buildings in the face of urban development.
In the late 1930s, the home of another famed Baltimore resident, Edgar Allan Poe, was spared when former Sun reporter and Poe Society president May Garrettson Evans solved a mystery worthy of the famed writer, who died in Baltimore 170 years ago today.
The map of ‘Area H’
It all started with a map.
Accompanying a June 4, 1938, article in The Baltimore Sun that announced the approval of an $18 million “slum clearance” project was a map showing five areas in the city where existing buildings would be torn down to make way for low-rent homes. Three of the areas were designated for black tenants, two for whites — the start of a segregated system of public housing in the city.
Members of the Edgar Allan Poe Society recognized a section of West Baltimore labeled “Area H” as the block of Amity Street where the poet had lived from about 1833 to 1835. Spurred into action, they launched a “vociferous protest," according to a Sun article from June 5, 1938, titled “HOME OF POE FOUND DOOMED IN SLUM AREA.”
There was just one problem: They didn’t know the exact address of the home. Historical records did not specify whether Poe, along with his aunt, Maria Clemm, and cousin (later wife), Virginia, lived on the north or south side of the then-duplex building.
An entry in the 1833 Baltimore City Directory listed Maria Clemm at “3 Amity st between Saratoga and Lexington sts.” But subsequent directories did not include the family, who moved to Richmond just two years later. Later directories also omitted the house numbers of street addresses for several years, making it impossible to look up “3 Amity St” in future editions until 1845, by which time the city’s numbering system had changed.
As a result, the society couldn’t be sure whether the Clemm-Poe household had resided at 203 N. Amity St. or the adjoining property at 205.
Not knowing which house was the right one, they asked the city to save both.
The Baltimore Housing Authority responded with a compromise and a sort of challenge, according to a piece in the June 28, 1938, Evening Sun (emphasis added): “... the home of Edgar Allan Poe will be preserved if it can be determined which of the two houses was his home,” the authority said.
A misleading map and a troublesome task
Many believed that 3 N. Amity St. had been changed to 205 under the new system because of a map published in Mary Phillips’ 1926 biography of Poe. On the map, Poe’s home on 3 Amity St. is depicted as being on the north side of the duplex — making it 205 Amity St. in today’s numbering system. 1 Amity St. is labeled as the address on the south.
But the map was not drawn based on any hard evidence or data, said Jeff Savoye, the Poe Society’s current secretary/treasurer and webmaster. In actuality, the street numbers for the duplex were 3 and 5, making 203 Amity St. the correct address of Poe’s home.
This discovery was largely due to the work of May Garrettson Evans, who took on the “troublesome process” of pinpointing Poe’s location once and for all, said Savoye.
Evans, who had been a reporter at The Sun from 1888 to 1895, detailed her research in the December 1941 volume of the Maryland Historical Magazine.
Here’s how she did it:
First, Evans identified three Amity Street houses on Poe’s block in the 1833 directory: 1, 3 (where Poe lived) and 5, with 5 being the northernmost address of the three.
Then, by examining reliable maps and land surveys from the period, she concluded that 5 Amity St. was also the northernmost house on the entire block during the time Poe lived there.
Because the “twin houses” (what Evans called the duplex) were structurally one building, this meant that they had to be numbered 3 and 5, rather than 1 and 3 — contrary to what was depicted on the 1926 map.
“If, on the other hand, No. 3 was the upper one [of the duplex], and No. 1 the lower one, where, then, could No. 5 have been? A phantom house existing somewhere in mid-air?” she wrote.
That left the question of the location of 1 Amity St. Based on interviews with former Amity Street tenants, Evans surmised that this address belonged to a building on the northeast corner of Amity and Lexington streets, which also had an entrance (and thus an address) on Amity Street. In later directories, only the Lexington Street address was listed for this corner home, validating her hypothesis.
Finally, Evans examined the names and addresses in nearly three decades’ worth of land records and directories to translate the 1833 addresses, which had been renumbered several times, into modern-day terms — thus establishing 203 N. Amity St. as Poe’s definitive address.
Poe’s home and the ‘Poe Homes’ today
For its part, the Baltimore Housing Authority stated a secondary reason, in addition to the connection with Edgar Allan Poe, for saving 203 N. Amity St. rather than 205. Unlike the 205 property and the other buildings on the block, the 203 house had not been significantly altered from its original appearance and was “typical of the less pretentious dwelling of the [early nineteenth century] period,” it wrote in a 1939 agency report.
Perhaps simultaneously sensing a PR opportunity, the Housing Authority also decided to rename the entire “Area H” project the “Edgar Allan Poe Homes,” which became Baltimore’s first public housing development. Today, they are still known as the “Poe Homes,” where, this summer, households were left without running water for nearly a week due to a water main break in June.
The housing development’s literary name was played for dark humor in Season 3 of HBO’s “The Wire,” when a Barksdale gang member, more familiar with the housing projects than the poet, recounts a conversation with a white tourist and his wife who are looking for the Poe House, which is now a museum:
“He’s like, ‘Young man, you know where the Poe House is?' I’m like, 'Unc, you kiddin’ me? Look around, take your pick!’”
When they opened for residents on Sept. 28, 1940, The Poe Homes replaced 315 houses with 298 units for black families.
During construction, some of the area’s inhabitants, upon learning that the famed writer’s home would be saved from the wrecking crew, wondered why they couldn’t be spared as well.
“They are preserving Edgar Allan Poe’s house,” Sam Gordon, a shoemaker on nearby N. Poppleton Street, said to The Sun in 1939. “Why won’t they let me stay too [?]”