Rob Brennan, Doors Open Baltimore 2019, talks about the 6th annual chance for people to view over 50 buildings
Perhaps it was the human heart in a box on display for all to ponder at St. Mary’s Spiritual Center & Historic Site on North Paca Street that first brought thoughts of mortality to mind.
Or perhaps it was the remains of the 19th-century cadaver at the University of Maryland Medical School, along with the whiskey barrel in which the poor guy had been hidden after he was dug up from his resting place in a nearby cemetery.
The spirits of the not-so recently departed never seemed very far away during a visit on Saturday to two of the Doors Open Baltimore sites available this weekend for public visits.
Make no mistake — Doors Open Baltimore, now in its sixth year, is not and has never been a ghost tour. Instead, it is a rare, weekend-long opportunity to gain access to 50 of Charm City’s historic and/or architectural gems, many of which are usually closed to local residents.
“You can tell the story of Baltimore by its buildings,” said Rob Brennan, an architect who helped organize the Baltimore version of Doors Open. (Similar tours are held annually worldwide from London to Newfoundland.)
While trekking through a bunch of beautiful and/or important buildings, visitors get a whiff of lives lived long ago and of the social and political forces that governed Baltimore in the 290 years since the city was founded.
For instance, Davidge Hall, named after physician John Davidge, opened in 1812 in what now is the 500 block of W. Lombard St., the first building in what became the medical school campus.
That might seem ho-hum — until visitors learn the circumstances under which the medical school was founded.
“It wasn’t always safe to practice medicine in those days,” Brennan said.
In the early 19th century, doctors seeking to learn about the human body had little choice but to dissect the recently deceased. At the time, no one donated their bodies to medical science so corpses were in short supply. A flourishing black market sprang up. Criminals toting shovels and body-concealing whiskey barrels headed out to graveyards at night.
The public, understandably, was infuriated.
On Dec. 28, 1807, a mob gathered outside Dr. Davidge’s home at Liberty and Saratoga streets, where he had been teaching anatomy classes for about a week.
“They burned the house to the ground,” Brennan said.
An outraged medical community banded together and lobbied the state legislature to establish a school of medicine. But five years later, when the school finally opened, public feelings against human dissections had barely dissipated.
Anthony Consoli, the campus architect for the University of Maryland at Baltimore, pointed out ingenious aspects of Davidge Hall’s design meant to foil early opponents of medical research.
For example, physicians conducted anatomy studies in a third-floor auditorium that could be reached only by climbing two flights of stairs and navigating a confusing maze of narrow hallways.
A wall clock overlooking the foyer and backing onto one of those upper-story hallways concealed two peepholes. An observer with his face pressed against the back of the clock could spy unwelcome visitors as they entered the building, giving the staff time to hide the evidence. A concealed lever in the anatomy auditorium opened a door beneath the seats just large enough to fit a gurney bearing a corpse.
“I see this building all the time,” marveled Rachel Abbotts, 37, a cancer researcher at the University of Maryland. She was touring Davidge Hall with her parents, who are visiting from Great Britain. “But I never set foot inside it before now.”
Other buildings on the tour tell different stories.
For example, St. Mary’s Historic Spiritual Center & Historic Site at 600 N. Paca St. has an astonishing history of quiet advocacy for three groups often discriminated against in 19th-century America: Roman Catholics, women and black people.
“This is the original cradle of American Catholicism,” said Cathy Houck, who guided visitors on a tour of the site.
In 1791, St. Mary’s became the first Roman Catholic seminary in the U.S. In 1809, Elizabeth Ann Seton (who later would be the first American canonized as a saint) took her vows in the chapel and began her religious life.
And in 1829, a remarkable Cuban immigrant, Mary Elizabeth Lange, founded the first order of black nuns in the world, the Oblate Sisters of Providence at St. Mary’s. (Lange also surreptitiously — and illegally — conducted a school for neighborhood African American children in the lower chapel, Houck said.)
No wonder people whose lives intersected with the spiritual center sometimes didn’t want to leave.
That crypt in the chapel — it’s where the founder of St. Mary’s, a French priest named Francois Charles Nagot, is buried. A few feet away is an elaborate brass receptacle that contains a wooden box holding the heart of Ambrose Marechal, the third Archbishop of Baltimore.