Back Story: Charles Street winds its way through the heart of Baltimore

From its humble origins on the shores of the Patapsco River in industrial and rail-clogged South Baltimore, Charles Street transforms itself during its 10.9-mile journey through the heart of the city as it heads north through the fashionable and wealthy neighborhoods of Guilford, Homeland, Woodbrook, Murray Hill and into Baltimore County.

Charles Street — less glamorously known as state Route 139 above North Avenue — courses its way through Mount Vernon Place, around the Washington Monument, the first erected to the nation's first president.


Sunday Sun writer Carleton Jones once described Charles Street in his book, "Streetwise Baltimore: The Stories Behind Baltimore Street Names," as the "grande dame" of Baltimore streets.

And now the celebrated street is the subject of John W. McGrain Jr.'s latest book, which the Towson author, historian, photographer and former secretary of the Baltimore Landmarks Preservation Committee fittingly titled "Charles Street: Baltimore's Artery of Elegance."


Charles Street, which divides Baltimore from the east and west, has as much social cachet as Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, New York's Fifth Avenue, Philadelphia's Broad Street, Bourbon Street in New Orleans or Market Street in San Francisco.

It rolls past the front doors of lavish Victorian townhouses dating to the "Mrs. Astorbilt" period, as Jones wrote in his book, as well as stores, shops and the ever-grand landmark Belvedere Hotel, which presides over the street along with the former Stafford Hotel in Mount Vernon Place, which received its first guests in 1892.

It leads the way to such notable museums as the Walters Art Museum and Baltimore Museum of Art, and noted educational institutions as the Peabody Conservatory of Music, the Johns Hopkins University, Loyola University Maryland, Notre Dame of Maryland University and Loyola High School.

It is also the conduit for the congregants of the various churches that line its way, some of which include Old St. Paul's, the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation and the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

It goes by the front doors of Sheppard Pratt and the Greater Baltimore Medical Center before finally quietly dead-ending as Charles Street Extended in West Towson, overlooking the Beltway and distant rolling hills of Dulaney Valley.

In 1958, a road-building project connected it with the Beltway, which at the time was under construction.

McGrain's book was more than 50 years in the making. He writes that many of the Baltimore buildings he took black-and-white photos of between 1960 and 1964 were demolished in that era in "an attempt to improve the downtown."

When the General Assembly drew the first map of Baltimore Town in 1729, Charles Street was known as Forest Street, and by 1791, it appears on maps with its present name.


It was named not for Charles Carroll of Carrollton, as is popularly thought, but rather for Charles Calvert, the fifth Lord Baltimore, an historical fact that McGrain attributes to the late William Stump, the former News American editorial page editor and Sunday Sun writer who discovered it on a 1761 liquor license.

McGrain has drafted a variety of graphic sources — such as postcards and maps — in addition to his own photography to tell the story of Charles Street.

It is a fascinating guidebook that is written on several levels. It is an architectural and mercantile as well as cultural and social history.

It is useful to the reader wondering who lived, for instance, in the gorgeous Cedar Wood estate designed by architect Laurence Hall Fowler in the 4600 block of N. Charles St. in the city's Blythewood neighborhood. It was commissioned in 1926 by A. E. Duncan, founder of the Commercial Credit Co.

McGrain concludes by writing that the street was visited "by at least 16 presidents, three vice presidents, and three popes, four cardinals, several saints, innumerable singers, professors, and architects. At least four governors had dwellings on the street. … Certainly a novel-length book could be written about the artery of elegance."

He's certainly right about that.