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A new chapter at Baltimore’s H. L. Mencken House: Hollins Street treasure undergoing $1.5 million restoration

Shauntee Daniels, executive director of Baltimore National Heritage Area, descends the staircase of the H L. Mencken residence. The historic home on Union Square is in the final phase of a major renovation.
Shauntee Daniels, executive director of Baltimore National Heritage Area, descends the staircase of the H L. Mencken residence. The historic home on Union Square is in the final phase of a major renovation. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

The scent of wet plaster pervades the Union Square home of writer, newspaper reporter and observer H.L. Mencken. His venerable home at 1524 Hollins St. is emerging from a thorough and overdue restoration.

Its oak floors remain braced (the ceiling no longer sags), and a drop cloth covers the place where he hammered out his essays and columns. But the bones of this long-sleeping and little-visited Southwest Baltimore landmark have never looked more encouraging — vigorous. And yet, the old house reveals that while Mencken achieved his wide readership in journalism and literature, the place where he lived remains the chaste and unadorned home his cigar-making father bought in 1883.

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Newly air-conditioned, re-plumbed, re-wired and re-roofed, it promises to be a proud addition to the neighborhood’s living history. It also will be a place for an exchange of ideas about the man who wrote so much within the the four walls where he lived and died.

A year ago the nonprofit Baltimore National Heritage Area signed a lease with the City of Baltimore “to assume stewardship of the home.” The group will occupy the third floor and half of the second floor. The parlor, sitting room and dining room, as well as the study, will be reunited with their original furnishings and will be staffed by Mencken’s faithful band of literary aficionados.

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“The good news is that no city money is being used to accomplish the restoration,” said Jackson Gilman-Forlini, Baltimore city’s historic preservation officer for structures.

Why no cost? A generous benefactor, a retired Navy commander who lived in Hawaii, Max Hency, made a surprise $3 million bequest to Baltimore City for this purpose after his death in 2005. Born in 1923, he was a Mencken reader and devotee. Hency also gave nearly $2 million to a public library in Monticello, Illinois.

“Our job is to uplift the neighborhoods that Baltimore’s visitors go through,” said Shauntee Daniels, who directs the Baltimore National Heritage Area, as she conducted an informal tour of the Mencken house. Her group makes grants to Baltimore museums and neighborhood initiatives.

Mencken climbed two flights to reach his bachelor bedroom. It was here that he died in 1956, an unremarkable chamber with a window overlooking the alley. The room’s one extravagance is a small plaster medallion with the Mencken family crest.

The house is free of pretension or extravagance, a place where a Baltimore grandmother or great-uncle could have lived. Long and narrow, and full of stairs and halls, the house has a fine pair of white marble front steps just off a brick sidewalk laid in a herringbone pattern.

Born in 1880, Mencken arrived in the house about 1883 and resided on Hollins Street except for the time when he married Sara Haardt and lived on Cathedral Street in what is now a Baltimore School for the Arts building.

After Mencken’s death, his brother, August, gave the residence to the University of Maryland. The City of Baltimore then made a curious trade — it gave the university the old Pine Street police station (nearby, just off Martin Luther King Boulevard) and took over the Mencken house. The house has been closed to regular public visiting since 1997, although it has been occasionally opened for small events. Its maintenance has long been an issue.

All this has changed since Azola Inc., building contractors, arrived and went to work. The office portion of the residence will be finished in the fall. The restoration of the public rooms will follow.

Of the house, Mencken once wrote, "I have lived in one house in Baltimore for nearly 45 years. It has changed in that time, as I have — but somehow it still remains the same. … It is as much a part of me as my two hands.”

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