Residents of English Consul seeking to restore recognition to community

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Welcome to Baltimore Highlands," proclaims the weather-beaten sign at Annapolis Road and Arbutus Avenue.

"That sign's not in Baltimore Highlands, it's in English Consul. We're forgotten in this part of the county," complained Frances Holmes, a partisan for the historic identity of her tiny community.

Mrs. Holmes, a native of England, declares her vestigial national pride in the history of English Consul but, like other residents, feels it is being subsumed by Baltimore Highlands, which is actually an adjacent area.

Local business people plan to renew the sign, and some residents say they may campaign to get the name of English Consul included.

"The English Consul identity should be perpetuated; Baltimore Highlands doesn't have a past that goes back to Colonial times,"' said Charles R. "Bob" Courtney, 58, president of the English Consul Volunteer Fire Department -- which actually is based in Baltimore Highlands. "Maybe we can do something about getting the name up there. I'd like to try," he said.

Spoken of locally as "English Council," the name comes from the estate and mansion built in 1818 -- on what is now Oak Grove Avenue -- by William Dawson, appointed in 1815 as the first British government representative in Baltimore after the War of 1812.

Consul Dawson died in 1820 and is buried at Old St. Paul's Burial Ground, on West Lombard Street near University Hospital. His descendants operated the estate, which was a farm, and businesses in Baltimore for decades afterward.

The name English Consul was applied to the area after the subdivision of the 254-acre Dawson estate began about 1908. Once there was an English Consul Station on the Baltimore-Annapolis rail line, but today only two institutions perpetuate the name, the fire company and the English Consul Christian Church.

The pastor, the Rev. James Duke, a member of the parish since 1929, said he, too, would like to see more public acknowledgment of English Consul. "When I was a boy, the area was well-known as English Consul, but it seems the name is being lost. Those who carry the name are very proud of it and wouldn't drop it for anything," he said.

Consul Dawson's 17-room, three-story, Federal-style hilltop mansion, still towers above the surrounding single-family bungalows and cottages. The house, known as The Mansion, is in one of its phases of restoration after being divided into apartments and once proposed for conversion to a nursing home.

The estate is replete with legends of tunnels for runaway slaves and of an annual whipping for a brother of Consul Dawson for an unspecified offense committed in England.

County historian John W. McGrain, who wrote extensively on the Dawson estate for the Maryland Historical Magazine in 1989, pooh-poohs the tales.

"They were more likely to have been slave owners," Mr. McGrain said. The young man in the alleged whipping was Frederick Dawson, the consul's son -- not his brother -- who was only 14 when his father took up the Baltimore post.

Two years later, Frederick went into business in Baltimore with an older brother, William, "leaving little time to disgrace himself in British society," the historian said.

If the legends have any factual basis, did they leave ghosts in the Dawson mansion?

Mary Laukaitis, 83, whose father-in-law, Ambrose Laukaitis Sr., bought the farm in 1923, doesn't think so. But nonetheless, she recalled being home alone while pregnant one night about 65 years ago; "I didn't feel comfortable so I sat out on the front porch until the others came home."

Marjorie Laukaitis Schultheis, 64, was born and grew up in The Mansion, owned by her grandfather. "It was beautiful. There was a fireplace in every room and those high ceilings. It made you feel it was some place," recalled Mrs. Schultheis, who now lives on Magnolia Avenue, a few blocks from her old home.

"I would like everyone to know that this was the oldest part, the beginning of this area. If the young people moving in knew more of the history, they would do more to preserve the name of English Consul," Mrs. Schultheis said.

Roland and Remedios Plummer bought the house in 1963. Until recent physical disabilities overtook them, they worked steadily at restoring it as close as possible to its original appearance.

Much of the original decoration, including ceiling moldings and escutcheons, remains in place, and concealing paint has been stripped off silver doorknobs. A three-story balcony on the west side of the house was removed years ago after it was damaged by fire.

Mrs. Plummer also disclaimed a belief in the supernatural, but said the sound effects produced by strong winds across the tall chimneys can be disconcerting. "You can hear the whoosh," she said.

"When I first saw this house, I couldn't believe my husband had bought it. I couldn't feature it as a home. It was in very poor condition," Mrs. Plummer said. Now the walls are covered with paintings and native art collected on the family's international travels.

The Dawson estate was sold in several sections. The central portion, a 20.5-acre tract that included the mansion, was known as "English Consul Estate." The other sections were called Rosemont and Baltimore Highlands.

The English Consul boundaries have been flexible. Some territory has been lost to the city -- English Consul Avenue is in Baltimore -- and the construction of broad Patapsco Avenue cut away part of the community, Mr. Courtney, English Consul Volunteer Fire Department president, said. The property adjacent to the mansion has become the Northeast Highlands Park, known as Unger's Field, for the family that bought the estate in 1908.

The hilly area around the mansion offers a fine view of the Downtown skyline, and residents say they have a ringside seat for all the Inner Harbor fireworks displays.

English Consul remains residential while surrounding areas have a mix of homes, businesses and industry. Industrial development in the area began in the 1950s, Mr. Courtney said.

When Mr. Courtney's family moved to Baltimore Highlands in the 1930s, development was sparse. "There were cultivated fields around the mansion, and there were a lot of farms along Annapolis Road where the plants are now," he said.

Mr. Courtney said the fire company began as a World War II Civil Defense auxiliary fire unit in a garage behind the church. It moved to its present Michigan Avenue headquarters in 1947, "but we kept the English Consul name because volunteers have fierce pride. With the past we have, it's very strong, it's a shame it has slipped away."

David Fisher Sr., 43, who grew up in the area and now owns an auto-body shop at Annapolis Road and Oak Grove Avenue, said he helped erect the welcome sign about seven years ago. "A man came out of the Gateway [a nearby tavern] and yelled at us when we were putting it up. He said it was English Consul, not Baltimore Highlands," Mr. Fisher said.

The man was right, Mr. Fisher acknowledged, but because the local recreation council and other organizations in the area use the name Baltimore Highlands, "it has just kind of swallowed English Consul." He said he has talked with other business people about sprucing up the sign soon, and maybe there can be some recognition of English Consul.

John T. Spurrier, 69, whose patriotic displays on the lawn of his Daisy Avenue home are a local landmark, recalled when the whole area around English Consul was still semi-rural. "There were all trees and paths and lakes and ponds here. I hunted squirrels and rabbits where the expressway is now. Old Annapolis Road still had oyster shells on it, and I remember when there were fields all around the mansion," Mr. Spurrier said. "Patapsco Avenue [now a major through-way] was non-existent, and Old Annapolis Road was the main thoroughfare."

"I'm partially English, and I'm concerned that the name English Consul is being forgotten. They say, 'You live in Baltimore Highlands,' but I don't. I live in English Consul. We love English Consul, not Baltimore Highlands."

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