Bolton Hill subject of recently published book

The red-brick rowhouse facades of Baltimore's Bolton Hill neighborhood hold their own and are every bit as dreamy as Boston's Beacon Hill and Back Bay, Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square, New York City's Gramercy Park or Washington's Georgetown.

The parameters of today's Bolton Hill are fairly recent, writes city historian, educator and author Frank R. Shivers Jr. in "Bolton Hill: Classic Baltimore Neighborhood. Blue Plaque Edition," published with the assistance of the Mount Royal Improvement Association and the Midtown Development Corp.

"From 1900 to 1955 the whole neighborhood from Druid Hill Park to the [5th Regiment] Armory and between Mount Royal and Madison Avenues was called Mount Royal," writes Shivers, who settled in Bolton Hill in 1951.

During the 18th century, three estates, George Grundy's Bolton, William Gibson's Rose Hill and Dr. Solomon Birkhead's Mount Royal, occupied the land, which by 1850 was beginning to be developed as a neighborhood with three houses on Lanvale Street.

"One blessing was the confidence of the residents. Bolton Hill always gave the town-dwellers an excellent spot to perch," writes Shivers, who for 30 years was chairman of the English department at Friends School and also an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "It occupied the highest ground within city limits and stood isolated above Jones Falls. Also, it was just the right length horse-car ride to town."

Actually, Shivers says, Bolton Hill is really misnamed because it occupies not Grundy's Bolton but rather the former 75-acre estate of Rose Hill.

The Civil War brought development to a halt, which resumed in earnest at the end of the conflict and rolled along for the next 50 years, resulting in the creation of a district with a "reputation for high fashion and high tone," writes Shivers.

In addition to its residences, by 1917 there were 10 churches, monuments and institutions such as the Maryland Institute and the Hospital for the Women of Maryland.

"Around 1955 the south end of the neighborhood was designated 'Bolton Hill' by a local garden club in order to encourage its development along the lines of Beacon Hill in Boston," writes Shivers.

Bolton Hill has survived attempts to build a major highway through its neighborhood and reveled in the efforts of those who moved in and took its old homes and restored them to their former glory.

The object of Shivers' veneration has proved throughout its history to be a fertile environment when it comes to its residents, past and present, who have been prominent in business, education, law, medicine, science, religion and government. They have been writers, artists, actors and musicians, all a part of the city's and nation's cultural life for well over a century.

Residents included a future president, Woodrow Wilson, who as a young Hopkins graduate student lived at 1210 Eutaw Place, and a fledgling filmmaker, John Waters, who resided five blocks away in the Marlborough apartments at 1701 Eutaw Place.

The Marlborough was also the home of the art-collecting sisters, Claribel and Etta Cone, who created a world-famous collection of works by Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne and others, now in the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Recalling his arrival in the neighborhood with his wife, Lottie, from Cincinnati 59 years ago, Shivers writes that at the time, Bolton Hill was "strange, stuck on itself and hard to know."

The young couple began life in Baltimore in a third-floor apartment at 237 W. Lafayette Ave. that rented for $48 a month, including water, heat and electricity.

"Streetcars went everywhere in this city of one million: North Avenue was part of U.S. Route 1,and we could take a train for Cincinnati from the Mount Royal B&O; Station," he writes.

"We walked to the town's libraries, museums, concert halls, and Barr Harris's auction gallery. Nearby were excellent purveyors of ice cream and pastries: Fiske's, Betty Patterson's and Dobereiner's," he writes.

In recalling the smells and sounds of those early years in Bolton Hill, Shivers remembers the summertime aromas of "magnolias, grandiflora, camellias" and the sound of a-rabs clip-clopping through the streets with their pony-drawn wagons selling fruits and vegetables by "singing out loud rhythmic street calls," and winters of "blizzard snows pelting windows."

Recalling "The Gin Belt" period in his book, which extended from 1917 to 1945, Shivers explained that Bolton Hill's popularity was due to its rentals, which were "dirt cheap" and probably had a great deal to do with its colorful collection of characters.

In the 1930s, F. Scott Fitzgerald toiled away at 1307 Park Ave, finishing "Tender Is the Night." Newspaperman Gerald W. Johnson, who was brought to The Evening Sun by H.L. Mencken and later became a noted historian and biographer, lived at 1310 Bolton St.

James M. Cain, whose steamy hard-boiled crime novels such as "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Double Indemnity," which later became blockbuster classic Hollywood noir pictures, lived at 2418 Linden Ave. while working as a Sun reporter.

Others had blue-blood society connections, such as Alger Hiss, who had grown up on Bolton Hill and graduated from City College and later Hopkins in 1926, and had lived at 1427 Linden Ave., while Whittaker Chambers, who later accused him of being a spy, resided at 2124 Mount Royal Terrace.

Former Baltimore Sun reporter Russell Baker, who later joined The New York Times and became a Pulitzer Prize winner for his 1983 book "The Good Times," moved with his wife and new baby in 1951 to a cellar apartment in a row house at 1501 Park Ave.

Writing to Shivers in 2004, he recalled serving drinks in a jelly glass to Baltimore developer Victor Frenkil, who had been brought to the apartment by a fellow reporter late one evening.

The couple eventually abandoned Bolton Hill after a large rat entered the baby's room and a misinformed debt collector armed with the wrong phone number and identity kept threatening Baker's wife.

"Not many dull moments in Baltimore in those days," Baker wrote.

Thirty-two years now separate Shivers' first history of Bolton Hill, "Bolton Hill: Baltimore Classic," which was published by the old Equitable Bank of Baltimore.

Shivers, 85, has lived with his wife for years in the 1400 block of Bolton St., across from Memorial Episcopal Church.

This time, he said in a telephone interview the other day, he had research and editorial assistance from two of his three daughters, Lottchen Gossler Shivers and Natalie Wilkins Shivers.

"It has only been 50 years in the making," he said with a laugh. "The essential difference between the first book and this one is that I've included vignettes and passages from people who had lived or live on Bolton Hill."

Shivers added that "most have never before been published and working on the book gave me lots of pleasure. It really wasn't work. It's a delightful story," he said. "The big thing is that my children really got it out."

It is written in a delightfully chatty and gossipy style, which lets us outlanders in on what life, then and now, is like on Bolton Hill, and it's obvious that Shivers' research has left no stone unturned, archive unexamined or source, living or dead, mined.

He has lavishly illustrated the book with many vintage and contemporary photographs and portraits, which illuminate the texture and feel of the community.

He has included an informative directory and thumbnail sketches of Bolton Hill notables, including addresses, for urban hikers wishing to locate these homes.

The "Blue Plaque Edition" refers to the century-old tradition in London of placing blue plaques on residences of famous people.

In 2004, Shivers joined the effort to recognize the homes of 24 former Bolton Hillers. He conducted the research and wrote the text for the plaques.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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