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Heart of the city is historic, with an upbeat pace Institutions, estates are setting for activity

When people who live here think of Baltimore, they naturally think of Mount Vernon Place and the Washington Monument.

It is that vista, that wonderful 19th-century compilation of houses and institutions, that greets the eye and piques the interest of the visitor and city dweller alike.

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Its image adorns postcards and visitors record their visits to Baltimore by posing their families in the shadow of the Washington Monument.

Charles Street's northern advance is bisected by architect Robert Mills' elegant monument to George Washington. The first monument erected to Washington after the Revolution, it was begun in 1815 and completed in 1829 when sculptor Enrico Causici's statue was placed atop the finished shaft.

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While not Baltimore's geographic center it certainly remains the city's emotional and intellectual heart.

In many ways it is as symbolic of who we are as a city as Beacon Hill is to Boston, Rittenhouse Square to Philadelphia or Gramercy Park to New York City.

It is the cultural and intellectual repository of such major institutions as the Peabody Institute, the Walters Art Gallery, the Baltimore School for the Arts, the Maryland Historical Society and the nearby University of Baltimore.

There is an abundance of churches, including Saint Ignatius Roman Catholic Church, Mount Vernon Place Methodist Church, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, First Presbyterian Church and Grace and Saint Peter's Episcopal Church to handle the neighborhood's spiritual needs.

During the day, Baltimoreans who live there or work nearby spend their lunch hours shopping in its quaint stores or dining in its cafes and coffee shops.

While members of the newly restored Maryland Club gather in their clubhouse at Charles and Eager streets, others meet at the Brewer's Art, Hippo or Central Station.

Exotic coffees are sipped in quantity by trendy thirtysomethings at Donna's or the City Cafe.

Origin

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While not shedding its outward 19th-century appearance or formality, the area remains an upbeat contemporary destination day or night.

It was John Eager Howard, the Revolutionary War hero, who can probably be credited with starting it all.

Living at Belvidere, his estate, he donated the land for the building of the Washington Monument and later his heirs turned into developers and sold lots to prominent citizens who built elegant townhouses there.

The first house to go up was Charles Howard's in 1829 on what is now the site of the present day Mount Vernon Place Methodist Church. He was the son-in-law of Francis Scott Key, who died in the house in 1843.

By the 1850s, the neighborhood had become fashionable and later home to such notables as A. S. Abell, Henry Barton Jacobs, Robert Garrett, Enoch Pratt, William and Henry Walters and Theodore Marburg, among others.

And to its famous drawing rooms came the celebrities and artists of the day. Some were merely visitors while others were Baltimoreans who preferred its quiet elegance.

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The future king of England, Edward VII, dined in 1850 at 1 W. Mount Vernon Place, today the Thomas-Jencks-Gladding-Hackerman House which now houses the Walters' Asian art collection.

His grandson, the Duke of Windsor and his wife, who had been simply Wallis Warfield Simpson in her Baltimore days, spent several nights there years later in the Mount Vernon Club, where the duke complained about the antique plumbing.

At 702 Cathedral St., President Abraham Lincoln spent the night April 18, 1864, as a guest of William J. Albert, after delivering a speech.

Across the street in a somber brownstone, at 704 Cathedral St., H. L. Mencken settled into married life in a third-floor apartment after his 1930 marriage to novelist Sara Haardt.

F. Scott Fitzgerald lived for a brief time in the early 1930s in the Stafford Hotel, which now houses senior citizens, at 710 N. Washington Place, while his wife, Zelda, was being treated for a mental breakdown at the Phipps Clinic of the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

It is said that Theodore Marburg, a career diplomat and ambassador to Belgium, worked on plans for the League of Nations in a second-floor front room with President Woodrow Wilson.

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Garrett-Jacobs mansion

The Garrett-Jacobs mansion, at 7-11 W. Mount Vernon Place, the house that the fortunes of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad endowed, was the largest and most costly house ever built in Baltimore when it went up in 1884.

Designed by Stanford White of the famed New York firm of Mckim, Mead and White, it was built for B & O President Robert Garrett and his wife, the former Mary Sloane Frick, Baltimore society leader.

After his death in 1902, she married Dr. Henry Barton Jacobs, and the house remained occupied by the family until 1939, when he died. Today, the spacious and grand home with its Titanic-like interiors is now the headquarters of the Engineering Society of Baltimore, which has owned the building since 1961.

Visiting in 1904, novelist Henry James wrote that Mount Vernon Place was Baltimore's "parlor."

"There were the best houses, the older, the ampler, the more blandly quadrilateral; which in spite of their still faces met one's arrest, at their commodious corners and other places of vantage, with an unmistakable manner. A certain vividness of high decency seemed to possess them, and this suggestion of real Southern glow, yet with no Southern looseness, was clearly something by itself..."

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Treasure

If James could return from the grave, he would still be able to look upon a Mount Vernon Place and surrounding neighborhood which comprises what is today Mount-Belvidere, and still see much of the architectural handiwork of such notables as Niernsee and Neilson, Edmund G. Lind, Stanford White, Dixon and Carson and John Russell Pope.

Frank R. Shivers Jr., Baltimore author and adjunct professor of English at Johns Hopkins University, who has just recently completed a walking guide to the neighborhood describes it as a "world treasure."

"It's unique. Nowhere else in the world will you find the same design," he said the other day from his Bolton Hill study.

"It's a master work of urban design and its uniqueness is derived from it being a Greek cross with garden squares that flank a monumental column.

"It is a culture corner, a place where we have concentrated all of those cultural institutions such as the fine arts, the performing arts, educational institutions, archives and museums. I don't think you will find in any other city so many cultural institutions concentrated in such a small area.

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"It's also a picture book of grand 19th-century American architecture that is well-preserved and it's a center of activity that is filled with people day and night."

Shivers, an unabashed supporter of the neighborhood, says, "There are more worthwhile things to do there than in the Inner Harbor. Mount Vernon Place is far from being superficial."

Don Davis, a Realtor for Long & Foster who often sells homes or condominiums in the area, lived for three years in the Washington Apartments, a grand beaux-art pile that is reminiscent of Paris or New York. It was built in 1906 and stands on the northwest corner of Washington Place. He has lived in the area for 13 years and only recently moved to Bolton Hill.

A native of Verdi, Nev., Davis came to Baltimore 21 years ago to visit a relative, fell in love with the city, and never returned home.

"It's my favorite part of the city and aesthetically, it's one of the nicest squares in the world and I've been all over the world."

He describes the market as "pretty strong after the 1991 recession," and says that property in the area is "moving a lot better these days."

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Returning to city

He also says that there is a trend, quite noticeable in Mount Vernon and other established inner city neighborhoods, of former suburbanites selling their houses in the county and moving back downtown.

"It's a buyer's market with properties ranging from $80,000 to $175,000 and prices steadily increasing," he said.

Davis also claims the area's designation as part of the Midtown Special Benefits District contributes to cleaner and safer streets.

Eva P. Higgins and her husband, a retired university president, ,, raised their two sons in an 1860-era brick townhouse with brownstone trim that they carefully restored.

The St. Paul Street Victorian Italianate mansion where they have resided for 20 years had formerly been an American Legion post and she still laughs over having to remove a long bar plus a ladies' and men's room from the house's interior that once served the legionaries.

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Higgins, who is a preservationist and a Realtor for Hill & Company, says the area is the city's "persona" and her "favorite spot."

"It's my favorite topic," she says of Mount Vernon-Belvidere.

However, she quickly reminds a visitor that its future protection depends upon unending vigilance.

"Vernon Wiesand, a former president of the Mount Vernon-Belvidere Improvement Association, once said, 'It needs protection 24 hours a day, every day. Its beauty cannot be taken for granted," said Higgins.

She also said she recognizes that there are such problems as the future of the Schaefer Hotel on St. Paul Street and the Peabody Book Shop on North Charles Street. "Right now, these two properties are causing some contention," she says.

She and her husband like the convenience of downtown living, which has meant being able to grocery shop at Eddie's IGA on Eager Street. She also says that shopping for the area's residents has been made easier by the mid-April opening of the Safeway Market in Charles Village.

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In addition to the architecture, which she describes as "stellar," it's the people who live there and the neighborliness that she likes.

"It's a neighborhood that is very tolerant of all kinds of people and they range from the prominent to simply colorful characters. It's nice connecting with the new people and the long-term residents."

Once in a while, when she and her husband discuss possibly downsizing, she says, "Where would we go if we didn't live here. I mean, we love it here and can't imagine living anywhere else."

Mount Vernon

Population: 5,385 (1990 Census)

Public schools: School for the Arts, Mount Royal Elementary

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Points of interest: Washington Monument, Peabody Conservatory, Walters Art Museum

Zip codes: 21201 and 21202

Average price of a single-family home: $150,000*

*Based on sales through the Metropolitan Regional Information System

Pub Date: 5/25/97


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