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Take Carroll Mansion off the block

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BALTIMORE's venerable Carroll Mansion is in peril once again.

It has long been in the pantheon of revered city-owned landmarks such as the Washington Monument, the pagoda in Patterson Park, the Battle Monument, Druid Hill Park's pavilions, the Peale Museum, the War Memorial and the Shot Tower.

But the mansion is now for sale.

(By the way, so is the Shot Tower.)

In fact, to the amazement and horror of historians, architectural preservationists and patriotic groups mobilizing to try to stop it, City Hall has put the entire City Life Museums complex, of which the Carroll Mansion became a part a few years ago, up for bids. Developers' proposals are to be opened Feb. 5.

Much instructive urban history has centered on the big brick house at East Lombard and Front streets, and it did not end with the death there in 1832 of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Successive generations of civic leaders fought to save the rare Georgian-style building, dating to 1808, as a shrine to the founding, early growth and success of the republic.

Throughout the latter part of the 19th century and well into the 20th, an almost continuous string of efforts to preserve what came to be known as the Carroll Mansion amounted to a decade-by-decade chronicle of the way Baltimore sees itself historically, architecturally and culturally.

A sort of Hundred Years' War against neglect and threatened demolition of this grand building -- beginning late in the 19th century -- ended with a final, decisive battle and a big victory celebration 32 years ago. Beautifully restored by the city, furnished in the Empire style as it had been when Carroll lived there, the house was opened to the public with much fanfare.

In 1980, it received infusions of money, research and authentic furnishings and was further enhanced as an eye-catching house museum.

It remained as such until 1997, when it suddenly fell victim to the financial woes of the handsomely reconstructed historical setting that swallowed it up, the now padlocked City Life Museums.

A new campaign

A desperate campaign to save the Carroll Mansion is being mounted anew, and a diminishing number of Baltimoreans with institutional memories may be forgiven if their first reaction is, "Been there, done that."

On June 30, 1967, the Evening Sun said in an editorial praising completion of its restoration:

"Thanks and acknowledgement are due the Mayor and other city officials who saw the newest Carroll Mansion project through to success, to the members of patriotic groups and historical organizations, to Mrs. Jacob France, to all fellow-taxpayers. Primarily, this Carroll Mansion in particular is a reminder of past greatness; and yet, as an example of very recent skill, determination and perseverance it can be a modern-times inspiration to those who now work to save some other noble landmark from destruction."

Indeed.

The mayor in question, not incidentally, was the late Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin. Both before and after his two terms as Maryland's governor, he was mayor of Baltimore, and saving the Carroll Mansion for future generations was his pet project.

In 1965, in response to rumors that President Lyndon Johnson was considering the popular Republican mayor for a post in his administration, Mr. McKeldin said he would prefer to see the Democrats make the Carroll Mansion a national monument. "What Boston would do if it had such a house!" the mayor declared.

Venerable vs. modern

It is ironic that in a city that no longer measures improvements in thousands but in many millions of dollars, the Carroll Mansion, is perhaps Baltimore's greatest bargain ever at $300,000 for renovation in 1966. But it languishes directly across the street from the new Port Discovery children's museum, which cost $32 million. The vaunted Inner Harbor, where millions continue to be piled upon millions and the tourists flock, is just around the corner.

So what is the solution?

In April, this newspaper called for the setting of "strict criteria for the reuse of the Carroll Mansion," referring to it as "a residence built for a rich merchant." Baltimoreans now, whether they have long memories or not, need to be reminded that this house is far more than that.

It is irreplaceable both architecturally and historically. Its chief significance, of course, stems from its associations with Carroll, for whom it was the town residence from 1823 until his death on Nov. 14, 1832, at the age of 95.

Carroll's place in the history of Baltimore, of Maryland and of the nation includes but is not limited to his role as an influential patriot in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, as the only Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, and as a merchant instrumental in the creation of the B & O Railroad and the C & O Canal, among other milestones of the early formation of the American economy.

Noted citizen

He is probably Baltimore's most important resident then or since. He was rich, all right, reputedly the wealthiest man in all the 13 original colonies. What a revelation it would be to the kids who visit Port Discovery, along with their elders, to cross the street and see how simply this illustrious citizen lived.

They would be walking in the footsteps of history, something they have fewer and fewer opportunities to do despite the lavish spending on their education and entertainment. They would be joining the likes of John Adams and Lafayette.

Among other distinguished visitors who paid their respects was Sir James Alexander, a British general. He wrote after his 1831 visit, "I found the venerable patriarch quite alone, and seemingly musing. The apartment was lofty, with furniture of an antique fashion, and family pictures on the walls. It was night; wax lights were on the table, and a clear fire blazed on the hearth." This was the reality that tourists and schoolchildren could experience firsthand until very recently.

Shockingly, the lovingly researched furnishings, even the chandeliers, have already been moved from the house, ostensibly for safe-keeping, pending the possible sale. Most shocking of all is removal from an exterior wall of the bronze plaque noting that the property was restored in 1966 "with the generous assistance of the Jacob and Annita France Foundation in memory of Jacob France, lawyer, industrialist, banker, philanthropist."

A rich legacy

The time has come to safeguard not only the furniture and chandeliers and mantelpieces and cornices, but also the rich legacy of France and McKeldin. The valuable research and persuasion of a host of supporters such as Wilbur Hunter, Elizabeth Hartley and Catharine Black must not be frittered away. An important part of the fabric of early Baltimore that noted architectural historian Phoebe Stanton calls "a treasure that should be carefully guarded" is in real danger of being lost forever.

If it is preserved, however, such practical considerations as convenient, safe and free (or at least inexpensive) parking must be factored into the plans for the large adjacent site of blighted public housing, soon to be demolished. If Towson's Hampton Mansion created the kinds of roadblocks to visitors that downtown Baltimore does, it too would suffer.

Peale Museum

Last year's original proposal to sell the scattered elements of the City Life Museums included the 1814 building that was the first in the United States erected as a public art gallery, also once Baltimore's City Hall. This was the Peale Museum, repository of the country's greatest collection of paintings by the celebrated Peale family.

The museum was stripped of its valuable art and in October construction crews were scheduled to begin converting the national landmark into offices for city employees. At the last minute, the project was put on hold.

Explained Clinton R. Coleman, spokesman for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, "The administration said, 'Wait a minute. This is a historic building. It was the first City Hall. What is the most appropriate use for it?' "

The Carroll Mansion deserves no less.

Frank P. L. Somerville retired in 1995 after 40 years as a reporter and editor at The Sun. In the mid-1960s, he was president of Baltimore Heritage Inc., which campaigned for the restoration of the Carroll Mansion.

Pub Date: 1/26/99

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