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Remembering Baltimore's magical glow from gaslights on a summer night

There was always something special about a summer night in Baltimore in the mid-1950s.

The front porch was the center of life. From my family’s Guilford Avenue porch, you could hear the roar of the Memorial Stadium Orioles crowds in the early evening.

You could learn neighborhood news without ever leaving the glider or wicker chair, or catch up on the official news of the city and state from the two afternoon newspapers passed around among the porch sitters.

Our home faced west and the porch would bake as the sun moved across the sky. Like our neighbors, we had a large, striped canvas awning that created a cool and pleasant outdoor retreat.

There was no air conditioning. My family didn’t put much faith in electric fans. Despite a lightly enforced rule that the oven would not be used in July and August, the kitchen was hot. Heat generated by a gas flame and a cast iron frying pan guaranteed we would take off for the outside soon after the last forkful of peach cake or blackberry cobbler was consumed.

There was an evening porch etiquette. Certain chairs were reserved for grandparents and parents. There was an extra seat for a neighbor who lived in a stuffy third-floor apartment. The rocking glider — a kind of cushioned sofa suspended on springs — was for my brother and sisters. It squeaked as we got it moving in an east-west motion.

We read the newspapers as long as daylight held out. As the sun disappeared over 29th Street, the mood of the evening would change.

Was there time for a fast run for an ice cream or snowball before the corner confectionery store closed for the night? Did someone need a pack of cigarettes? What time was the first edition of the morning paper hitting the neighborhood drug store?

The lighting of the corner gas lamppost determined the official start of the summer night.

I was reminded of the grace of these old street lamps this week as a group of Morgan State University School of Architecture students cleaned and repainted classic and surviving Baltimore gas lamps in the garden of the Peale Center on Holliday Street in downtown Baltimore.

The students scraped flaking paint and tapped out musical rhythms as they brought the lampposts back to life. Their meticulous work was a reminder to me of the beauty of those lights.

Our part of Baltimore was one of the surviving gas light outposts. The city had not converted our neighborhood to electric street lighting.

Men would come with ladders and wash buckets to clean and adjust the gas burners and fancy glass globes during the day as we children observed — we missed little on those endless summer days.

The cast iron streetlights were things of beauty.

Their posts were painted a dark green. The glass globes looked like fancy vases topped by a ventilator finial to keep oxygen feeding the flame inside.

The flame did not flicker. It was encapsulated in a gas mantle — I could never master the mechanics of this device — that produced a soft yet distinctive light. Gas light was romantic and evocative.

Modern street lighting, with its tall, utilitarian poles, just is not the same.

Of course, in my youth, the glow of the gas lamps was also a signal: The youngest of my siblings would have to go to bed, and within an hour the canvas awning would be raised up on ropes and lashed down for the night.

The streetlamp would work its soft, nocturnal magic on those in the family who remained outdoors until about 11 p.m.

The gas lamps didn’t work too hard on those short summer nights — they were off before the newspaper boy and the milkman arrived the next morning.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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