Holly Tour is Mount Vernon with all its charm on display


IF I HOLD a complaint about Baltimore, it's that we are often too reserved and don't open up.

So, the only way I learned of tomorrow's Holly Tour, 11a.m. to 5 p.m., was through posters I've seen along Charles Street. Now I often walk the street, but most people, if they use it at all, are being carried by rubber tires.

More than 30 years ago, I got to know the Holly Tour and its indefatigable founder, Margaret Safford Dudley Boulden, who operated it out of the First and Franklin Presbyterian Church. She was a longtime Girl Scout leader and powerhouse. She was not a native Baltimorean; she brought a clear set of eyes to what it might take to make the city a better place. In her own way, she opened a Baltimore neighborhood and brought it some of the recognition it deserved.

She and her committee in the Mount Vernon churches were trying their best to cheer up the neighborhood with a little boost of publicity every December.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when Boulden was at her peak of energy, the Holly Tour was a required activity. In the city of that time, when it often seemed the sky was falling, she rounded up people and places to open their doors on a Sunday afternoon. We were guided by her little green booklets; we ate it up.

The idea was to celebrate the architectural diversity of the streets around the Washington Monument, their great houses and apartments which, after all, were looking a little tatty around the edges, but still holding on with pride, slipcovers and plenty of caulking.

So, we went to many Holly Tours. I don't have much recollection of the specifics; like everything in Baltimore, there were pluses and minuses. At the end of the day, you felt good.

I guess what impressed me the most was the attitude. Here, on some of the most trafficked streets in the city, (Mount Vernon is not a walled, secluded section), people actually opened their homes for general snooping. If there was ever a way to lift the spirit, this was it.

Mount Vernon remains a highly diverse neighborhood that has yet to become solidly anything. It's hard to predict - and that is part of its charm.

It's also been heavily resistant to quick urban makeovers, the way some parts of South and Southeast Baltimore have changed in the last decades. In almost any block, there will be crummy houses alongside an increasing number of showcases.

During my travels throughout Baltimore, I've been in some of the homes that will be open during tomorrow's pilgrimage. I can say they are among my favorite residences in the city.

The other night, while standing in Mount Vernon Square and watching the fireworks at the Washington Monument, I dissolved into one of my many it's-great-to-live-in-Baltimore moments. This night, it had nothing to do with buildings and architecture, but with the public spirit of the evening - a grand assembly, helped along, in my case, by a traveling cup of peppermint schnapps and hot chocolate to fight off the December chill. I've often thought that this part of Baltimore is at its best in the winter.

Tickets for the tour are $20 and will be sold at the Peabody Institute, 1 E. Mount Vernon Place. There are also $50 tickets, which include a Maryland Club luncheon in addition to the tour.

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