For nearly 20 years, I watched a landmark stone house deteriorate. Once one of the proudest addresses in the city, the home of the Druid Hill Park superintendent and later the Maryland Zoo director became vacant.
Trees began growing through its windows after its slate roof collapsed. Its stout stone walls were tumbling down. Sitting on a rise at the western edge of the city park, it became a symbol of neglect, an example of what can go wrong within city government.
Then, about a year ago, this depressing situation began to change. First, workers cut back the kudzu and ivy that had overtaken not just the old stone house, but blanketed its surrounding trees.
Earlier this year, I spotted a new slate roof, repaired stone walls, replacement windows and copper flashing. I also saw the sign of master restorers Lewis Contractors, the same firm that brought back the Basilica of the Assumption and the Sheppard Pratt gatehouse, among other Maryland landmarks.
I met with Jacqueline "Jackie" Carrera, president and chief executive officer of the Parks & People Foundation, the private group whose board approved $12 million to reclaim the stone mansion and the 9 acres where it sits on the triangle at Liberty Heights Avenue, Reisterstown Road and Auchentoroly Terrace.
"This is part of Druid Hill Park," Carrera said while standing just outside the busy work zone. "But in its previous condition, people thought it was some kind of a glorified traffic island."
Her organization will make its headquarters on the land around the stone house. Architects Ziger/Snead have prepared handsome plans for a super-green staff building and a campus for the organization, whose mission statement says it is "dedicated to making Baltimore a great city for all."
The architects have described this tract as a showcase "for sustainable design practices." The old superintendent's home is being carefully preserved on the exterior. A decision was made to leave its second and third floors open, so the home will have a soaring interior with what promises to be interesting natural lighting.
Carrera said her group has raised about $11 million of the $12 million needed to compete its move to the site. Each year Parks & People works on neighborhood greening projects, community gardens, street tree planting and other green initiatives.
The house sits in the greater Mondawmin neighborhood, which includes the smaller areas of Liberty Square and Parkview/Woodbrook.
The house was built around 1872 for the park superintendent and his family. It was designed by George A. Frederick, the architect who gave Baltimore its City Hall and the old St. James the Less Roman Catholic Church on Eager and Aisquith streets.
Frederick was a prolific park building designer too. He did a superintendent's building in Patterson Park and a now-disappeared observation tower in Federal Hill Park. He died in 1924 and is buried in New Cathedral Cemetery.
For nearly 35 years, park Superintendent William H. Cassell lived in the stone residence. He worked hard to improve the sprawling Druid Hill greensward.
The 9 acres were once directly connected to the rest of Druid Hill Park but cut off about 60 years ago when new roads were sliced through the park. Parks & People has a 55-year lease on the site.
Parks & People now has its offices in the old Stieff Silver building but will move to its different quarters as work progresses at the Auchentoroly site.
"I want to show children this is their park, where they can walk, hike or garden. I want to show the kids how to catch butterflies," Carrera said.