A crew of six men hoisted an enormous mahogany bookcase from a van into the wallpapered sitting room where a Baltimore newspaperman entertained the literary lights of the first half of the last century. H.L. Mencken’s Cubano cigar box, on the other hand, and his pencil sharpener arrived in a shipment of 46 boxes, along with 1940s carbon paper.
If Mencken was a saver, and he was, some miracle of respectful dedication has restored his workaday legacy. His writing desk, office chair and L.C. Smith typewriter are now in place. Somehow, his Parker ink bottle (still fluid) and Eberhard Faber pencil leads have survived.
His pencil sharpener carries the name of the Biden Company, Stationers, 19 N. Liberty Street.
Over the past four weeks, volunteers have worked hard to reposition objects preserved and saved from this rowhouse at 1524 Hollins St., facing the Union Square park.
The home will be open Sunday as part of the neighborhood’s annual cookie tour, along with numerous other 19th-century residences. This is the first public opening of a refurbished and refurnished Mencken House, now a public museum.
“We’ve tried to get the house ready in the time we’ve had. There are still about 20 unopened boxes‚” said Brigitte Fessenden, president of the Society to Preserve H.L. Mencken’s Legacy and the home’s acting curator. “It’s an ongoing process.”
As a museum, the home sets a stage for a prosperous Baltimore family. The reunited furnishings (stored for 22 years at the former Greyhound bus garage at Centre Street and Park Avenue, now the Maryland Historical Society) arrived in good condition. Even an old brass electric fan works.
A red upholstered sofa is coming back Monday from Annapolis, where it was loaned to Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller. Clarinda Harriss, a Mencken family friend, donated a vintage rug for his study. Joan and Bob Schellhase gave signed photos of Mencken and his music-making pals at the Schellhase family’s Howard Street restaurant.
It was the out-of-nowhere $3 million bequest from Max Hency, a retired Navy commander in Hawaii who willed a chunk of fortune to Baltimore City, that restored the house as a museum. Joining the effort were the Union Square Association, Goucher College, the Friends of the Mencken House, the Maryland Historical Society, The Baltimore Sun and the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Last year the nonprofit Baltimore National Heritage Area signed a lease with the City of Baltimore “to assume stewardship of the home.” The group occupies the third floor and half of the second, leaving the rest for the museum.
Mencken arrived in the house about 1883 as a 3-year-old. He lived here for the rest of his life, apart from the time when he married Sara Haardt and lived on Cathedral Street in what is now a Baltimore School for the Arts building. He died in his third-floor-rear bedroom in 1956.
For the past 22 years the house was occasionally open but fell into disrepair. Its physical restoration (roof work, plumbing, electrical) took most of this year.
The place has its charms. Henry Louis Mencken and his brother, August, who survived him by 11 years, made the basement into a man cave, complete with a secret door on their wine and liquor cellar.
The heavy Mencken bookcase, the largest single piece of furniture in the house, was made a handful of blocks away by Potthast Brothers at their Wicomico Street furniture factory.
It arrived minus the key to unlock its glass doors. The Mencken Legacy treasurer, Sarah Littlepage, a Union Square resident whose family owned a nearby Baltimore Street furniture business, tested a supply of furniture keys her grandmother had gathered. Littlepage tried 51 keys. None worked.