Filmmakers discover Union Square Movie vindicates work by preservationists


For years, some Union Square residents have felt that their labors to preserve one of the city's most historic neighborhoods went unappreciated by much of the public.

But recently those feelings have been replaced by the warm glow that comes from being recognized by Hollywood.

Union Square's red-brick townhouses take on a storybook quality in the new movie, "Washington Square." The New York Times' review of the film praised Union Square's portrayal of the downtown Manhattan neighborhood of the movie's title.

"This movie vindicates the role that preservationists have played in keeping this neighborhood looking very much as it did in the 19th century," said longtime resident Ardebella Fox.

Fox and her neighbors hope to use Union Square's role in the film to push for more changes to benefit the neighborhood, including the renovation of a long-vacant, city-owned house.

"We struggle with the drug problem, the sanitation problem," said Maryellen Cahill, a 12-year resident. "Sometimes I think we all must be crazy for living here.

"But we get a lot of pleasure out of our homes. And it's nice to have someone else appreciate them."

Jack Gerbes, deputy director of the Baltimore-based Maryland Film Commission, said the film puts Union Square on the map for Hollywood types: A film director might think " 'I've got a period picture, and Baltimore's got the architecture.' "

Union Square is bounded by Pratt Street on the south, West Baltimore Street on the north, Schroeder Street on the east and Fulton Avenue on the west. It is on the national and city registers of historic places.

H. L. Mencken's old neighborhood was almost lost to history a generation ago, say residents.

Many of the once-stately houses were sagging from neglectand many of the square's plantings had died.

One city official proposed paving over a quarter of the historic square to create a basketball court in the early 1960s, said neighborhood activist JoeAnne Whitely, who helped found the Union Square Neighborhood Association in 1967.

But preservationists prevailed by persuading city officials to support the designation of the area as a historic district and to provide money to help pay for "an authentic restoration" of Union Square Park, including pink-tinted sidewalks.

Preservationists dictated landscape and architectural plans for the park, dismissing city plans as too modern.

The stately, 1840s-era Hollins Street house, where many of the movie's scenes were shot, was rescued from the city's condemnation rolls a generation ago by Fox, who paid $10,000 for it and had it lovingly restored.

Fox renovated many other neighborhood houses, including eight that are shown in the movie, she said.

Thinking of all the work that went into the neighborhood restoration caused Fox and others to burst into tears last week at the screening of the movie, which is based on a Henry James novella.

"It was an emotional night -- sort of breathtaking," said Debra Rahl, a longtime resident.

The movie, which was shot in summer 1996, has a few scenes from other Baltimore neighborhoods, too, including Mount Vernon and Fells Point.

The credits include a thank-you to the Union Square Neighborhood Association.

The movie will be released locally Oct. 17, a week before the neighborhood celebrates its 150th anniversary in Union Square Park in ceremonies that are expected to include the governor and the mayor.

"You couldn't ask for a better birthday present," Fox said.

Pub Date: 10/06/97

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