Neighbors herald return of shored-up Federal Hill Park


In 1839, Dr. Thomas Buckler proposed that Federal Hill be leveled and the dirt used to fill the Inner Harbor. Baltimore rejected the idea. By 1990, nature had almost handed Dr. Buckler his victory.

Tonight, residents of Federal Hill and the city's Department of Parks and Recreation will throw a party to celebrate saving the hill once more.

Since the spring of 1992, Federal Hill Park has been closed for major renovations, both structural and cosmetic. Its steep northern slope had dipped dangerously toward the Inner Harbor, and temporary efforts by the Parks Department to prop it up finally demanded a more permanent solution. The retaining wall on the north side of the park has now been shored up and its top side is in the final phase of landscaping.

"It's a national park really, a historical park, a tourist park and a neighborhood park," says Nancy Knowlton, an architect and 12-year resident of the Federal Hill community. She has worked closely with the City Parks Department and her neighbors since landscaping plans first came under debate three years ago.

Reopening ceremonies for the park begin at 6 tonight and continue until 10. At dusk, Baltimore harbor's dock master will call all boats to blow their horns and whistles in celebration of the hill. At 8 p.m., a town crier will herald the ribbon-cutting ceremony with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and State Sen. George Della. An hour later, Gene Walker and Baltimore's Big Band are to perform.

Also at 9 p.m., archaeologists from the City Life Museums are to open a slide presentation on the sand tunnels of Federal Hill. The tunnels, which date to at least 1799, were excavated during the recent renovations. They are thought to have been mined by glass manufacturers and brick makers. But they also played a role in the Civil War. In 1861, the Union's Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler stormed Federal Hill and then laid siege to Baltimore from there. According to Civil War historians, when the general discovered the tunnels under "Fort Federal Hill," he assumed they had been burrowed by Southern sympathizers in order to blow up the Hill.

Living history re-enactments also will be part of this evening's activities. Reenactors of the New York regiment, the Duryea's Zouaves who built Gen. Butler's fort, will participate. So will neighborhood children, who will stage a re-enactment of the 1788 Constitutional parade. That parade, and the feast that followed, was held in honor of Maryland's ratification of the Federal Constitution. About 4,000 people marched, feasted, sang and raised glasses to celebrate.

Tonight about 300 to 400 people are expected to attend the park's reopening, according to Peggy Stansbury, an 11-year resident of Federal Hill who was asked by the Parks Department to coordinate the community's efforts in the celebration.

Although minor improvements on the park have been made periodically, it wasn't until 1991 that the State Senate passed a bill to issue both state and city bonds to pay for major park renovations. "The goal was to rehabilitate a worn out park, a park that is central to the city, a park that has seen the whole Inner Harbor change," says Sen. Della.

The first phase, stabilization, cost $1.4 million. Another $500,000 went to cosmetic rehabilitation such as new lighting, new benches and new walkways. Nearly four dozen trees were planted as well as 18 flats of English Ivy. A new children's playground was built and the old caretaker's house torn down and replaced.

"It was a wonderful process of working together, with the community and the city. "Every time you bring a community together it makes the quality of life better," says Mrs. Stansbury. "People say the quality of urban life is so bad. Not here."

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