For nearly two decades the Union Square home of writer and observer H.L. Mencken has been a sorry sight. It has been closed to the public and has been opened only a handful of times a year.
But this week, the nonprofit Baltimore National Heritage Area entered into a lease agreement with the City of Baltimore “to assume stewardship of the home.” It’s about time the property, listed as a National Historic Landmark, gets its due.
The preservation group promises that within a year, this rowhouse, at 1524 Hollins St., will be open again. The heritage association, in a statement, said it will renovate the home and work with the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development and the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.
When the house is finished, H. L. Mencken enthusiasts will step in to set up exhibits and programming and establish public visiting hours.
The project was funded by a curious source. A retired Navy commander who lived in Hawaii, Max Hency, made a $3 million bequest to Baltimore City for this purpose after his death in 2005. Born in 1923, he was a Mencken enthusiast. He also gave nearly $2 million to the Allerton Public Library in Monticello, Ill.
"I have lived in one house in Baltimore for nearly 45 years,” Mencken said in his writings. “It has changed in that time, as I have — but somehow it still remains the same. … It is as much a part of me as my two hands. If I had to leave it I'd be as certainly crippled as if I lost a leg."
Jeff Buchheit, executive director of the heritage association, said the group was “thrilled to be part of this collaboration with our city agency partners to revitalize this local and national landmark.
“We look forward to working with the volunteers from the Mencken Legacy Group on how to best interpret the life and work of Mencken, including the controversial aspects of his career.”
Mencken, who died in 1956, wrote charmingly about life in his home, where he moved as a boy about 1883, several years after his birth in another West Baltimore home, on West Lexington Street. He did his writing here, in a second-floor front study overlooking the little Union Square Park. Except for the period of his marriage, when he lived with his bride, Sara Haardt, on Cathedral Street, he remained at the home his father, a cigar manufacturer, bought when it was newly constructed.
Mencken’s brother, August, who survived him, deeded the residence to the University of Maryland. For a while it was used to house students, but this plan, along with others, did not work out. In 1997, after some years of being operated as a component of the old Baltimore City Life Museums, the house closed.
The unexpected Hency legacy promises to give the house a new roof, upgrade the heating and ventilation systems, and generally make the place presentable.
Jason Vaughan, director for historic preservation of the Baltimore National Heritage Area, told me that while the house is structurally sound, years of vacancy require restoration of the home’s flooring and interior finishes, repairs to the roof and general improvements to bring it up to modern codes. The Baltimore National Heritage Area will occupy the third floor as an office space.
"It’s finally going to happen,” said Brigitte V. Fessenden, president of the Society to Preserve H.L. Mencken's Legacy Inc. “It’s terribly worn down. The floors are soft and need reinforcing, and the plaster walls need repairs.”
Vaughan said the renovations will begin later this year and stretch into 2019.
“Our goal is to reopen the house with a public event on September 12, 2019, on the 139th birthday of the iconic writer,” he said.
Not only will the house be repaired and opened, but so will the backyard garden, where Mencken played as a child and later planted morning glories, enjoyed a beer and smoked a cigar.
“The garden is very special place for the house and was obviously a very special place for Mencken,” Vaughan said.