What's the ideal starting point for a grand tour of Baltimore?
My answer is invariably Federal Hill Park, the city's outstanding observation deck, delightful oasis and breezy lookout, even on a torrid July night.
For the past few months, the park's big hill that rises from Key Highway at Battery Avenue has been more or less closed to strollers for a beauty make-over. The landscapers and construction crews are working frenetically to get the park ready for its reopening tomorrow evening (6 p.m. to 10 p.m.) with all due ceremony, rites and speeches.
I cheated a bit and walked through a construction fence earlier this week to get a look at the new/old Federal Hill Park, its young trees, brick-paved walks, street lights, benches, stone park building and children's playground.
Let's be patient and give this greensward and its fresh landscaping a couple of growing seasons to come back into its own. The park has the look of a new garden where much is young and tender.
Parents should approve of an attractive and large fenced reservation in the middle of the park (off limits to canines), a setting for old-fashioned playground equipment.
How many Sundays was I taken there some 40 years ago under the eyes of a grandmother or her sister? I think I got my appreciation of the Baltimore skyline from a playground swing atop good old Federal Hill.
"Here, in short, is one of the world's great gangways. . . . Here is where Baltimore looks out into the wide world," noted Evening Sun writer Gerald W. Johnson on Nov. 10, 1938.
He too was one of the many converts that Federal Hill has won over the years. The hill has been a favorite spot for photographers, artists and writers. And lovers of history too, because Federal Hill distills so much local lore into a small, flat-topped piece of ground.
It was on the hill that Baltimoreans celebrated the ratification of the federal (hence the name) Constitution in 1788. The town's merchants put up a lookout tower staffed by an eagle-eyed watchman to signal when ships packed with goods were headed into port.
At some point, local industries had tunnels dug under parts of the hill. Tradition says that these caverns were used to store and chill beer, or perhaps mine fine sand. More often than not, the tunnels caused the hill to sink and cave, thereby occasioning a wealth of stories about secret passages, slave tunnels, wartime arteries and assorted urban myths.
During the Civil War, the Union forces occupied Baltimore, built an earthworks fort on the hill and kept guns trained on the city and its southern sympathizers.
The public park arrived about 115 years ago. There have been bandstands here and benches, but Federal Hill really has never needed much embellishment. It is such a natural observation spot from which to watch the boats and the city.
The harbor nearly always seems clear and clean from a lookout post off Warren Avenue, the park's southern boundary. Who can identify all the church steeples of East Baltimore, so easily viewed from the hill? Listen and you'll hear the train horns on the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad trackage. And there always seems to be a ship unloading raw sugar at the Domino factory.
This is the place where lazy old Baltimore views the reconstructed city of the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
The new Baltimore may still be a little short on the character that only time imparts, but the Federal Hill vantage point helps the gentle aging process along nicely. This is to say, it all looks better from Federal Hill.
Once again, Gerald W. Johnson in 1938:
"The watchman and his spyglass are gone. Gone are [Civil War General] Ben Butler and his bearded artillerymen, with their cannon, wheel to wheel, menacing the fettered city. . . . Around the statue of Armistead, stout-hearted defender of Fort McHenry, children are playing today; on the flat hilltop where the great guns stood, mothers sit in the shade of the trees and babies roll on the grass. The cheers and bonfires of 1788, the thunder of the bombardment of 1814, the grim threat of 1861, seem far away from this tranquil spot where old men drowse in the sunshine."
Long live Federal Hill!