If country houses are supposed to be hallmarks of Merchant-Ivory films, romantic novels and Sunday-night episodes of "Masterpiece Theatre," then what is the Greek Revival mansion doing within sight of vacant and abandoned houses?
There in the heart of West Baltimore, at 811 W. Lanvale St. off Fremont Avenue, is a public school building. Look more closely and you'll see this is no ordinary schoolhouse. Use a little imagination (check out the rose-and-thistle pattern cast-iron work) and you'll get a hint that this was a 19th-century residential showplace.
It's called Upton, and the former mansion will reinherit its niche in local history this Saturday when it becomes a stop on a tour of Baltimore's grand and glorious country houses, restored and as-is.
Grand and glorious at Lanvale and Fremont?
And what countryside is left at a citified corner in West Baltimore, where the public housing high-rises are within sight and pedestrians walk the streets warily?
The local experts know otherwise. They put Upton in the same category as the better recognized Homewood, Evergreen, Clifton and Mount Clare, once owned by families named Carroll, Garrett and Hopkins.
Baltimore architect and historian Michael Trostel lives only about six blocks east of Upton in Bolton Hill.
"Baltimore was booming. The population was doubling every 10 years in the early 1800s. People were making great fortunes. They lost them, too. Everything was centered around the harbor, shipping and later railroading.
"The craftsmen followed the money. They left Annapolis and came to Baltimore. The woodworkers, the plasterers and the furniture makers arrived, making Baltimore a great center of fine work. We know about the silver that has survived from this period. We forget about the houses," Mr. Trostel said.
Merchant princes built imposing homes a mile or two away from the center of the city, then clustered in and around the harbor.
"Upton," Mr. Trostel said, "is the last Greek Revival villa in Baltimore. It's a pity it is so little known."
So little known is something of an understatement. It was last written about at any length in 1929, shortly before it became radio station WCAO's broadcasting studio. It was mentioned again in the 1940s, then a long silence set in. After WCAO left in 1947, it was used by the Baltimore Institute for Musical Arts, an academy with the same goals of the Peabody Conservatory, but in the days of racial segregation, reserved for African-American students. It lasted until 1954, when the city school system took over the property.
The fine villa that sits on a little hill is not unloved by the dozen or so Baltimore public school teachers who work here educating the city's sick, injured and home-bound students, an "invisible" enrollment that can reach 2,700 students a year. Much schooling is done by phone.
Upton also has its resident historian, 49-year-old teacher Wayne Schaumburg, a devout student of local history, who leads tours of Greenmount Cemetery for the Baltimore City Life Museums. He works in Upton's attic in what was once a servant's bedroom.
"Because of the hill, I have a great view of the city. You can imagine what it was like looking out the window here and seeing the ships in the harbor," he said.
He'll tell you that Upton's roots go back to Edward Ireland, a Britisher from Barbados who built a home here. Then came David Stewart, who bought the estate in 1838, tore down what was there and probably hired architect Robert Carey Long Jr. to construct a stately country house festooned with fancy plaster work, fine iron balconies, interior pilasters, molded cornices, a double parlor and mantelpieces.
Much of the original detail is there, hidden under heavy school-corridor linoleum and lighted by fluorescent tubes.
Other stops on the tour are Clifton, 2701 St. Lo Drive in Clifton Park; Mount Clare Mansion, Carroll Park; Homewood House, 3400 N. Charles St.; the Baltimore Museum of Art's Willow Brook Room, taken from a home that once faced Union Square.
Saturday's $35 reservation-only Baltimore Country House Legacy tour is sponsored by the Historic Houses of the Johns Hopkins University and the Baltimore Architecture Foundation. The price includes the escorted van tour, which leaves from Evergreen House, 4545 N. Charles St., at 1 p.m. Information: 516-0341.