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History of Charcoal Club in Mount Vernon is written in paint

Baltimore historian Allen C. Abend’s latest book tells the story behind a corner property in Mount Vernon. Standing at 1230 St. Paul St., at the southwest corner of Preston Street, is an 1880s building marked with a prominent glass skylight.

From 1916 until 1934 an institution known as the Charcoal Club was headquartered here. Abend’s new publication, The Charcoal Club of Baltimore: 138 Years of Mastery & Merriment reveals the story of this association, founded in 1883.

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“It is an amazing one and the group is still functioning, although in a considerably reduced capacity,” said Abend, a retired architect who lives off Smith Avenue and has written other books detailing the lives of Baltimore artists.

The club’s old headquarters, on Saint Paul Street, contained rental rooms, galleries and and artists’ studios. The Depression of the 1930s extracted a severe financial toll on the club and it lost the building. The skylights remain a part of the neighborhood’s architectural heritage.

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“A studio was erected behind the building for the exclusive use of women’s classes, with a separate entrance on Preston Street,” Abend said. “The basement was renovated into a rathskeller, known as the Cypress Room. In the 1970s, Raoul Middleman, Baltimore artist and teacher at the Maryland Institute College of Art, lived on the top floor of 1230 St. Paul.”

Abend shows that the Charcoal Club members were among those who established the Baltimore Museum of Art. Many members of the museum’s first board of directors were club members, including the first board vice president and secretary.

He shows how the club had to overcome the puritanical morals of the Victorian era. The club was first established to allow artists to paint and sketch female and male nude models. Nudity was not practiced in Baltimore art schools, Abend said.

The club also brought some artistic character to an otherwise hard-working industrial and maritime city that did not have much time for painting and sculpture.

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“During the 19th century, Baltimore was a leading center for commerce, but for most of the century was not a cultural powerhouse,” Abend said. “The Charcoal Club was one of few organizations that played a major role in filling this cultural void.”

For a time, it was where many went to learn art.

“From the 1880s until the 1930s, the Charcoal Club Art School was one of the pillars of the Mid-Atlantic region for training students who found careers in Baltimore and elsewhere as painters, sculptors, art instructors, newspaper artists, cartoonists and architects,” he said.

“From 1911 through 1926, the Charcoal Club ran the most important annual art exhibition in Baltimore...,” he said. “The exhibition was held for many years at the Peabody Institute and later displayed in the galleries of the Maryland Institute.”

But the show was a hard sell. Baltimoreans often preferred to spend their arts budget in New York and Philadelphia.

Members of The Baltimore Sun staff were among its members — beloved cartoonist Richard “Moco” Yardley and photographer A. Aubrey Bodine belonged.

Abend explains that the club championed the work of local artists. In the 1930s, when a bank foreclosed on the club’s headquarters, the Charcoal Club created a plan for patrons viewing their exhibitions to rent a piece of art. About thirty-five artists signed up for the plan with the understanding that should a patron decide to purchase the artwork the rental price would be subtracted and payment could be made on an installment plan, the author writes.

The Club also organized an art exhibition at the Maryland State Fair in Timonium from 1919 through 1931.

The Charcoal Club still meets occasionally, usually for a lecture or demonstration at another local landmark, the Schuler School of Fine Arts at 7 East Lafayette Ave., near the Charles Theater. The Schuler School, a private art academy, also has a remarkable skylight.

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