A neighbor walked his dog by the front door of the old stone mansion, letting the pup sniff near where an elegant garden once stood.
Known as both Mount Royal and the Birckhead-Bond house, the secluded 18th century building has had “nine lives, like a cat,” said Jackson Gilman-Forlini, a preservationist with the city, which owns the structure and the 2 acres of land in Northwest Baltimore it sits on.
After more than a century as a private residence, it was a home for Norwegian sailors, a library and even a day care. At one point, enslaved people worked its grounds. Decades later, Union soldiers camped here during the Civil War.
Today, it’s an unofficial dog park for its Reservoir Hill neighbors and what Gilman-Forlini calls a “rare example of an 18th-century mansion house” in the city.
Its next life is anyone’s guess. On Monday, the city comptroller’s office is putting Mount Royal up for sale, issuing a request for proposals to developers who can pitch their ideas to the city government and the surrounding community. Applications will be reviewed by a panel of residents and officials, who will get input from the surrounding community before making a recommendation to Democratic Comptroller Bill Henry.
“We’re trying to cast a wide net and get as many proposals as possible,” said Andy B. Frank, acting director of real estate for the comptroller’s office. Proposals are due April 8; Frank says they hope to select a buyer by July.
Inside, the building is more abandoned office park than Architectural Digest. A 1970s-era renovation led by the city added drop ceiling tiles and uniform drywall over its stone walls. Some 10,000 square feet of floor is covered with linoleum or carpet; there’s nary a hardwood in site. About the only visible historic artifact is a Xerox machine.
“The masonry has survived, but that’s about it,” said Gilman-Forlini, who led a tour of the property earlier this month for The Baltimore Sun. Developers will need to preserve the historic exterior, but the interior, Gilman-Forlini said, is a “blank slate.”
An assessment in online property records puts Mount Royal’s value at $663,000. Frank, whose office reviews property sales and proposed developments in the city, said Baltimore will consider offers from as low as $1 as long as a developer’s project would benefit the community in some way. “We will have to get an appraisal. ... If someone offers less [than that value], then we’re basically considering an investment by the city.”
Whether it generates $1 or much more, the sale will mean the city is no longer on the hook for Mount Royal’s maintenance. That’s an important consideration at a time when Baltimore has a $2.7 billion backlog of maintenance projects on properties it owns, Henry says. “One of the city’s greater challenges is deferred maintenance for property and infrastructure that the city owns,” Henry said, calling it “an across-the-board problem.”
Henry said he hopes that the sale of Mount Royal will become a “poster child” for how Baltimore disposes of surplus properties while seeking community engagement, creating a model for development that “really benefits the entire city.”
Neighbors voiced a range of hopes for the space in a 2019 survey. Some wanted a banquet hall, others a Trader Joe’s. Almost no one wants to see more housing or places of worship — Reservoir Hill has plenty of both already.
They “overwhelmingly support a moderately priced restaurant or cafe,” according to a report analyzing 165 responses. Reservoir Hill has few dining establishments. Its only coffee shop, Dovecote, reopened last summer after a long pandemic hiatus but is now closed again until March, according to one of the cafe’s posts on Instagram.
Henry compared the situation in Reservoir Hill to one in Patterson Park, where he worked in community development before becoming the comptroller. After a few years, developers had fixed up enough homes to draw in residents, but not given them anywhere to go out. “We had succeeded in bringing in people who had money to spend and didn’t want to have to leave the neighborhood to go have a burger.”
But above all, Reservoir Hill residents want to see Mount Royal cared for. According to the 2019 survey, led by then-City Councilman Leon Pinkett, a Democrat, they fear an “absentee landlord, neglectful owner, or one that requires constant search for external funding.”
The mansion — its official address is 2001 Park Ave. — is the oldest city-owned property on the market. Built in the 1790s, it served as the summer home for prominent Quaker physician Solomon Birckhead, who called the property Mount Royal. The nearby terrace and avenue get their names from it.
High on a hill overlooking the Jones Falls Valley, Mount Royal allowed Birckhead and his family to escape from the city’s heat and odors. Records from 1798 show that the grounds included 101 acres, including terraced gardens that reached the Jones Falls below.
Eight enslaved workers were also included in the 1798 assessment, meaning that Birckhead was an enslaver. The city says prospective buyers of the mansion must agree to conduct an archaeological survey of the adjacent grounds, in particular to determine whether bodies of enslaved people are buried there.
But the family’s — and the home’s — story, is not one-sided. Birckhead’s grandson, Hugh Lennox Bond, was an abolitionist and Union supporter during the Civil War; Union soldiers set up an encampment on the property. Later, as a federal judge, Bond earned the nickname “The Curse of the KKK” for his thorough prosecution of the Ku Klux Klan.
The late 19th century and early 20th century saw the growth of neighborhoods outside Baltimore’s city center. Mount Royal’s land was parceled off into Reservoir Hill, home to beautiful brownstones for the city’s upper-middle class. Writer Gertrude Stein lived nearby.
“It was a very chic neighborhood,” Gilman-Forlini said.
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In the 1920s, the property became a Quaker home for older adults, and then in the 1950s was purchased by the Norwegian government as an inn for sailors — away from the vices of Baltimore’s port. Three dollars provided a bed and a home-cooked meal.
When Peter Angelos purchased the property in the 1960s to transform Mount Royal into a high-rise apartment building, neighbors and preservationists rallied to the old home’s defense, nominating it to the National Register of Historic Places and petitioning the city to step in.
Baltimore purchased the property, and as part of a 1970s urban renewal project, spent nearly $1 million to renovate it. The former sailors’ home became a day care center and branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Its most recent tenant, Metro Delta Head Start, moved out in 2013.
Since then, city repairmen have come by to fix leaks and cut weeds, maintaining it in the hopes that someday, someone will find a use for it again.
“We’re interested in seeing what people come up with,” Gilman-Forlini said. “The best use is one that fills a need, the needs of the surrounding neighborhood.”
After all, Gilman-Forlini said, the building survived more than two centuries by adapting to the changing eras.
“Mount Royal is interesting. It’s kind of undergone an adaptive reuse with each generation, from single-family home to group home to a boardinghouse and multipurpose center,” he said. “I think that flexibility has been what saved it.”