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Baltimore's own Central Park enjoys revival atop Druid Hill

A pair of good shoes, some time and accurate directions helped me experience the hidden assets of Druid Hill Park.

At 745 acres, it's a daunting natural landmark with an inventory of surprising treasures. It's something of a must-see at the peak of the Maryland spring, when the rolling parkland, lakes and majestic trees all combine for a fine outing in the middle of Baltimore.

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A volunteer group, the Friends of Druid Hill Park, is hosting a two-hour walking tour next Saturday. I previewed the event to catch up on this historic greensward.

My guides were Tom Orth and Rob Brennan, members of the friends group, who met me at the Howard Peter Rawlings Conservatory near the Gwynns Falls Parkway side of the park. The conservatory, with its exterior plaza inset with colorful tiles in a design by artist Joyce Scott, was looking amazing on a tulip-y April morning. Even better, schoolchildren were seeing live oranges, coconuts, grapefruit and bananas growing on trees under the conservatory's glass roof.

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"We see the tour as a means of providing a comforting way to come back and rediscover the park," said Brennan, an architect who practices around Baltimore and Washington. "We've seen a re-engagement of the community, Reservoir Hill and Mondawmin, with the park."

The park, which opened in 1859, was financed by a then-novel tax: a penny per rider on the horse-dawn rail cars that carried Baltimoreans out to what was then a distant, suburban location.

The park once had its own miniature steam railroad that hauled passengers through Druid Hill's meadows. The railroad is gone, but its wooden pavilion stations remain. So do circular picnic shelters that are booked on summer weekends for family reunions.

The park, which followed the creation of New York's Central Park and Philadelphia's Fairmount, enjoyed good times through World War II. Then it suffered decline, first when new roads were built around its southern and western edge.

In 1961, the American Institute of Architects criticized the city for the unannounced demolition of the park's Moorish-style bandstand, one of its many curious architectural grace notes.

"There have been substantial changes at Druid Hill in the seven years I've been volunteering here," Orth said. "There is more community involvement and there is more attention from the city's Department of Recreation and Parks. There is increased park usage, from mothers with strollers to bikers and basketball players. The outdoor exercise equipment has been a big hit."

On this walk, I realized that over the last several decades, Druid Hill has indeed staged a steady revival. The current tour will showcase the resplendent conservatory and the thoroughly rebuilt park superintendent's home, now the headquarters of the Parks and People Foundation.

While these are expensive improvements, I was amazed at the progress made at the St. Paul's Cemetery, a burial ground established in 1854 before the park was created. Over the past seven years, its dignity has been restored lovingly by members of the Martini Lutheran Church congregation and other interested persons.

The park's richly wooded northern section, which abuts the Woodberry and Clipper Mill neighborhoods, is now more accessible thanks to a well-used bike path, part of the Jones Falls Trail. I observed other pedestrian walks and the Gwynns Falls Parkway street crossing being rebuilt this spring.

The tour does not include the Maryland Zoo at Baltimore, which occupies the center of the park. The zoo remains a constant attraction and major source of visitors. It's a separate destination worthy of its own visit.

The park also supports herds of deer as well as opossums and foxes.

The $15 Druid Hill park tour begins at 11 a.m. April 23 at the Rawlings Conservatory.

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