London may have Charles Dickens, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and even Jimi Hendrix. But Baltimore's Bolton Hill has F. Scott Fitzgerald, Woodrow Wilson, the aide-de-camp to Gen. Robert E. Lee and the scientist who discovered biorhythms.
Whether they lived across the Atlantic or here in Baltimore, they all have something in common - a blue plaque on the house where they once lived. It's a century-old concept in London to adorn the houses of famous people with the plaques, but Bolton Hill - one of Baltimore's oldest and most elegant neighborhoods - has just imported the idea.
The aim is to create a keener sense of historical lore for residents and tourists alike. Seventeen royal blue circular plaques were recently placed on the fronts of the houses so they are easily visible from sidewalks.
"These are all innovative people," author and literary historian Frank R. Shivers Jr. said of the 24 former Bolton Hill notables being commemorated. "But they had to be recognized nationally, not only in Baltimore. Now you can almost literally follow their footsteps, since their houses are all within walking distance."
Shivers, 79, a Bolton Street resident who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 50 years, collaborated with neighbors on the project, with no financial help from city government. The plaques were installed late last year and include information about each of the personages.
Bolton Hill has been a fashionable enclave for Baltimore's doctors, educators and art collectors since the late 19th century. Perhaps the most famous of the residences is a tall gray townhouse at 1307 Park Ave., where Fitzgerald lived with his wife, Zelda, and daughter, Scottie, during the Depression. The family was under enormous stress at the time, with Zelda Fitzgerald being treated for mental illness.
"He endured and suffered here," Shivers said of the Jazz Age novelist, who died in 1940.
Many who live in the neighborhood have a keen sense of the history surrounding Bolton Hill's characters. As a child, David Roszel, 82, used to play with Fitzgerald's daughter. He recalled the author of The Great Gatsby as a man possessed by his writing. "You could hear him walking up and down the second floor trying to write," Roszel said. "To me, he was just Scottie's father who wrote and a friend of my aunt's."
Dr. James Duke, who moved into the house 30 years ago, said he was happy to go along with the community initiative.
"I didn't think twice about it," he said. "They resemble the plaques in London and attract your attention. So I went along with the proposal. I have noticed several people reading, but happily, no one has knocked on the door."
Not all of the honorees overlapped as neighbors, but some may have crossed paths. Col. Charles Marshall, who served as Lee's aide during the Civil War and was there for the surrender at Appomattox, Va., in 1865, might have run into a studious Hopkins graduate student with political aspirations by the name of Woodrow Wilson. The student who would become the 28th president lived at 1210 Eutaw Place. A plaque honoring Marshall will go up at 213 W. Lanvale St.
Among the notables was Curt Richter, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who discovered biorhythms and aided the World War II effort by researching biological warfare. Richter, who died in 1988, lived at 221 W. Lafayette Ave. His plaque reads: "To prevent possible Nazi use of rats for biological warfare, he had neighbors kill rats with an experimental poison."
In England, the blue plaques were conceived in Parliament in 1863, and have been hailed there as a way to "open a window into another time by showing us where the great and the good have penned their masterpieces, developed new technologies, lived and died."
Shivers wrote the simple text for each Bolton Hill plaque. Those honored passed a simple test, he said: Their body of work crossed lines of time and place.
Two notable pairs of Baltimore sisters have their homes designated - Edith and Alice Hamilton and Claribel and Etta Cone. Edith Hamilton was an expert on ancient Greece and the first headmistress of Bryn Mawr School, while her younger sister Alice was a doctor who pioneered in the field of hazardous lead paint research as Harvard University's first female professor.
The Cones lived in the stately Marlborough Apartments at 1711 Eutaw Place, which housed their premier collection of works by French painter Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Cezanne and others, now at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Shivers said the volunteer effort received a grant from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to help defray costs. Each plaque costs about $275 to make, he said, and several more will be installed in the spring.
Bolton Hill has some way to go to catch up to London's streets, which are studded with 750 blue plaques. The rules there dictate that people must be dead for 20 years before a plaque on their home will be considered. Foreigners such as American poet Sylvia Plath, musician Hendrix, Freud and Marx must be judged to have an international reputation.
An administrator of the London program said yesterday that she was glad to hear that the Bolton Hill landscape is being outfitted with circles of blue.
"We're always delighted to welcome the scheme," said Susan Skedd, historian for English Heritage's plaques program.